What is excellence for a team?

by Barry O'Reilly

How to create high performing teams in today’s ever-changing world

Imagine: you are part of a team where everyone shows up on time. They sit down and do exactly what they should be doing at the right time. They reach out to each other and you as any surprises come up, address and resolve them. In meetings, they gel and complete plans in a timely fashion. Everyone knows exactly what is next. Even when something goes not-to-plan, they react and adapt quickly to fix or improve the customer experience.

What you are experiencing here is FLOW for your full team.

There is no ego.

There are only problems and solutions.

Your problems are out in the wild — making sure you are meeting market needs with the right products, not drama inside your company.

That is what we all want, yes? Especially for high performers.

Maybe you have experienced this before — being on a team that was performing at a high level. And you crave to get back to that place again.

Maybe your current team used to be there, but it seems like the team is no longer on the right trajectory. You want to get better — and you know you can — but you don’t yet know how.

Or you have never had this experience — YET. But you know you want to because it sounds amazing (trust us, it is!).

You always want to push the boundaries. Striving for excellence is what you are made for.

But…you aren’t sure how to create this structure and experience for you and your team.


Now what?

How do you get back to, go further, or create an excellent, high performing team?

Let’s get you out of your rut starting with an understanding of what top teams have in common.

The 4 Traits We Always See in High Performance Teams

Problem-Solving Focused

Rarely do great teams get stuck battling to prove who’s right and who’s wrong. They remove individual ego, and value constructive criticism. They focus on the problem, and best options to tackle it–rather than tackling one another.

Crave Cross-Functional Collaboration

They favor cross-functional collaboration, but know ultimately one individual owns making the decision. Decision ownership is moved to where the information and context is richest rather than based on hierarchy.

Outcomes Oriented

Speed of motion means little without results. Great teams measure progress based on outcomes like doubling customer satisfaction rather than completing a checklist of one hundred features.

Fluidity with Frameworks

They recognize the only real process is rapid learning and course correction based on the results. They learned enough of the rules to know when to break them, and adapt the approach to the problem they are facing.

What does the journey to excellence look like?

The OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) framework, which was established at Intel and popularized by companies like Google, is generally recommended for setting ambitious SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic & Time-bound) goals, generally set and reviewed quarterly.

When working with a team implementing OKRs for the first time, one of the team members was concerned about making the goals quarterly — he felt that one of his objectives was only interesting when viewed annually. There is often a tension between short and long-term goals when applying the OKRs framework.

So we came together to discuss and debate how we can adapt the framework to fix the thing we wanted to communicate.

We found that adapting the OKRs framework to add ‘because’ was beneficial. It focuses the team on the emotional ‘juice’ that motivates the objective in the first place. It also created a way to link the short and long-term aspects of our goals.

What is Excellence

Example of an adapted OKR:

Objective: Increase customer lifetime value by 20% BECAUSE, we want to be the #1 e-commerce platform in America by 2018.

Key Results:

  1. Increase product selection by 25% in the bath and beauty areas.
  2. Deliver goods within 4 hours in the top 5 major American cities.
  3. Decrease customer service complains by 30%.
  4. Close more than 1,000 sales with basket value greater than $10,000.

How many times have you been stuck fixating on a framework or forcing your problem fit into it?

There are two ways to approach this kind of challenge — ie, when you have an outcome that you are aiming for and the framework you are using doesn’t quite fit what your need in the way you want:

  1. Academically debate whether the system is a good one and scour the interwebs as well as articles, journals, asking friends and colleagues, to find The Right System TM. OR
  2. Adapt your framework to meet your needs, achieve your objectives, and keep going.

You have probably guessed which approach we would recommend 😉

Excellent teams favor fluidity over fixating on frameworks.

This means, when something isn’t quite providing the outcome that you want, make the slight adaptation that is needed for your team’s needs — and KEEP GOING.

Of course, this doesn’t mean rebuilding the foundation of a home and calling it a small tweak.

But, in this case, saying a particular goal is only interesting when viewed from a long-term lens, define that goal in that way and move on.

As Fred Brooks, noted computer scientist, Turing-award winner and author of The Mythical Man-Month, stated:

There is no single development, in either technology or in management technique, that by itself promises even one order-of-magnitude improvement in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity.

With that in mind, you want to choose frameworks that represent best practices, have been heavily used and vetted in comparable environments…and also adapt these in a fluid fashion to meet your needs.

Recognizing problems, ideas to address them by collaborating and deciding on an approach — that may need adapting framework, to your problems and context — is the very definition of agility in pursuit of excellence.

The next time your team faces a challenge, major or minor, try exhibit the traits above and see what results you get. We bet it’ll be your first steps on your journey to excellence, higher performance and exceptional team growth— TOGETHER.

This article was co-authored with Jocelyn Miller, a corporate trainer, executive coach, and change management expert who uses her extensive technical and product experiences from Amazon and Google to transform organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to high-growth startups.

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