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The 4 Ingredients of Building Hyper-Productive Teams

01.16.2013
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image It is every leader’s dream to build hyper productive teams (Hype Team). This topic not only attracts a lot of attention but at the same time leads to a lot of debate as explained in the following paragraphs. I have worked as a team member as well as a leader on several different projects in different geographies. Irrespective of the cultural background of teams, domain or technology being used, my own personal experiences of building hyper productive teams concur with several research papers.

What are Hyper productive or high performance teams?

Let me tell you that there is no formula to specify a team as Hype Team without comparing it to another team. The measure of productivity is always contextual. Wikipedia defines a Hype team as: A group of people with specific roles and complementary talents and skills, aligned with and committed to a common purpose, who consistently show high levels of collaboration and innovation, that produce superior results.

The most popular example of building hyper productive teams in the Scrum world comes from Jeff’s paper on Shock Therapy – boot strap on Hyper productive teams. Jeff defines a Hype Team as follows: We define Hyper-Productivity here at 400% higher velocity than average waterfall team velocity with correspondingly higher quality. The best Scrum teams in the world average 75% gains over the velocity of waterfall teams with much higher quality, customer satisfaction, and developer experience.”

Even though not everyone agrees with the jeff’s definition, my own experience says it is possible to build a passionate, highly energetic, self-organized team by using the following ingredients.

Ingredient 1: Identify a good leader

So far no one has been able to articulate a step by step approach to building Hype Teams. But many have been in successful in capturing the different ingredients needed to build one.  However, I strongly believe that hiring or having a good leader is the first step in building the Hype teams.  Psychology Today provides some good tips in hiring leaders.

Indicators for identifying leadership:

  • Does the person help the team become more effective at making decisions quickly and reaching a working consensus?
  • Does this person foster effective collaboration across a team made up of several experts?
  • Does this person impose discipline on themself and their team to prepare and act with the professionalism?

Ingredient 2: Common goal and shared vision

All research available on the topic of building Hype teams agree on one thing, having a common goal with a clear vision. Building a shared vision is context dependent. In the Agile world, this could include having clarity on the backlog items, common agreement on definition of ready and done checklists, common understanding of what defect means. Are the common high level goals clear to everyone: can individuals abandon their individual objectives and metrics to respond to unfolding situations or do they wait for instruction?

Every major decision should document:

  • How can we tell if this works?
  • When will we know?
  • What will we do if it doesn’t?

If you are struggling to understand your customer’s vision, try this popular game Remember the Future.  Reiterate and share goals/visions as often as possible. This could be done through posting the vision in a visible place, revisiting them during the showcases. The shared vision approach combined with good leadership skills would create Self organizing teams, necessary to nurture high productive teams. Self organizing is possible only if the teams respect each other.

A few questions to ask yourself in regards to building self organizing teams include:

  • Is there an open and free flow of information so that teams can self-organize around problems?
  • How important is for you to be in control: do you prefer inaction to mistakes in the absence of your specific instructions?
  • Are the common high level goals clear to everyone: can individuals abandon their individual objectives and metrics to respond to unfolding situations or do they wait for instruction?

Ingredient 3:  Trust, Trust and Trust

Creating a safe place for the team to express their opinions and creating space for the team to fail. Building a transparent culture and following through the commitment builds trust within the team. Transparent culture can be built by making the data visible through radiators in the team rooms. Let radiators show all the risks, issues and blockers. Move away from the information refrigerator culture. Continuing to be transparent and sharing the bigger picture with the teams the time leads to people to stop working in isolation and in turn creating the foundation for systems thinking culture.  The book “How NASA Builds Mission Critical Teams” provides a detailed view of applying systems thinking concepts in building high performance teams.

I pulled an excerpt from Dr. Atul Gawande’s Failure and Resuce commencement. I think these are three skills that help teams build trust.

  • Judgment: the ability to develop a point of view and to use it to make decisions in a timely fashion as dictated by the implications of unfolding events. This may require making decisions with incomplete information, and that’s a useful distinction  to remember: if you have enough information it’s a choice based on your values, if you don’t, if there are uncertainties or ambiguities, it’s a decision.
  • Mastery of Teamwork: this requires effective two way communication, timely coordination, and establishing a level of trust that enables effective collaboration. It also requires alignment on goals, agreement on roles, negotiation of a common process, and a commitment to effective business relationships.
  • Accepting Responsibility for Consequence of Your Choices: you can make a good decision based on all of the information you have in hand and still have a poor outcome. Sometimes a poor outcome is a possibility that can be anticipated and mitigated and sometimes it’s part of the “unknown unknowns” of a situation.

Ingredient 4: Continuous improvement

High performing teams are not built in a single day or a month. It usually takes a few months to a couple of years. Teams working on long durations need to continuously learn and evolve. This article articulates the importance of continuous learning very well.

Here is another good book Management Challenges for the 21st Century, written by Peter Drucker, address the issue of continuous improvement on the “Change Agents” chapter.

This excerpt elaborates on his core concept of organized abandonment.

For being a change leader requires the willingness and ability to change what is already being done just as much as the ability to do new and different things. It requires policies and practices that make the present create the future.

Abandon yesterday.The first step for a change leader is to free up resources that are committed to maintaining things that no longer contribute to performance and no longer produce results. Maintaining yesterday is always difficult and extremely time-consuming. Maintaining yesterday always commits the institution’s scarcest and most valuable resources–and above all, its ablest people–to non-results. Yet doing anything differently–let alone innovating–always creates unexpected difficulties. It demands leadership by people of high and proven ability. And if those people are committed to maintaining yesterday, they are simply not available to create tomorrow.

Working in distributed mode

The challenges get multiplied while working in a distributed environment. Use of effective communication tools play a key role here.  In the Agile world, the scrum of scrum meetings with key stakeholders from the multiple geographies could help in alleviating the pain a bit. I use Ideaboardz as a tool to conduct distributed retrospective, estimation using planning poker is done using Video conferencing devices.

To summarize, the recipe to build high performing team is based on the above 4 ingredients.  You miss one; the recipe is gone once and for all.

Published at DZone with permission of Venkatesh Krishnamurthy, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)