Regular Team Maintenance for Better Team Performance

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.
March, 2008

Are you someone who gets regular physical check-ups, or do you wait until you experience real discomfort before you consult a physician?  Do you heed the friendly reminders of your dentist?  If you own a vehicle, do you regularly maintain it, changing its oil and checking the tires and water?

If you perform this sort of regular maintenance, congratulations.  You are more likely to have a healthy body and a vehicle that will perform well for you.

As a leader, you likely go through periodic performance reviews with individuals that you lead (hopefully, more than once a year).  Done well, this sort of review reveals opportunities for further leverage and opportunities for individual professional development.  But how often do you perform this sort of regular maintenance on your team?

When we form teams, we tend to consider the hard work mostly done.  Oh, sure, team members may come and go, but once formed, teams quickly form an operating rhythm and sense of solidarity about them.  Meetings tend to be similar in nature, with presentation of performance metrics, strategies for gap closure, and strong information exchanges predominant.  And because of this cadence, we expect them to keep performing as promised for our organizations, even in the absence of regular check-ups or reflection.

So how often does your team pause and reflect on its performance….not only on the financial and operational results you generate, but on what issues the team chooses to take on, and how well members engage with one another on the stuff that matters most.

Teams need to regularly assess how they are doing against several dimensions.  Frances Hesselbein, founding CEO of the Drucker Institute, suggests that organizations review their missions every three years.  We suggest here that teams review how they are doing yearly -- more frequently if they are generating or in the midst of complex organizational changes.

When adding people to their organizational chart, leaders generally consider the knowledge, style, and history of the individuals they select.  We find, however, that they often neglect to thoroughly consider how newcomers will integrate into or change the operating style of their team, and even fewer openly address this dynamic with others on the team.  

When we work with teams to help them become more highly performing, we place a simultaneous emphasis on expected results and on team dynamics. We relentlessly focus on the purpose, mission and expected results of the team as we continue to ask teams to define themselves and answer the question of what kind of team do they need to be.  And we find that assessing the team’s strengths and weaknesses, often by using online assessments, provides additional clarity and traction around team performance.

Consider one team we recently coached:  eleven individuals strong, this executive team consisted of seven of the “old guard” who had been with the company over twenty years, and four who had joined the organization within the last few years.  This executive team was part of an organization losing ground with their competitors, who had launched new products with innovative service delivery systems, resulting in much greater speed and agility in the marketplace.  Our meeting with them was their first foray into a real self-examination process. 

At least half of the “old guard” were skeptical about the process and, as it turned out, were also dismissive about the contributions and value of the newer members.  And it was no surprise that their leadership style assessments pointed out that cynicism was a regular behavior for many of these leaders when they were under stress.  During the day, we discussed this attitude and its impact on building a better functioning team.  Everyone paid attention, particularly the team leader, when we openly explored that the result of excess cynicism is a reduction of trust, engagement, speed and thus competitive advantage.  Without this deliberate process of reflection, this team would have continued to perform as usual, likely losing confidence with its newer talent and the ability to really compete.

Forward-thinking leaders should promote regular team maintenance.  Given the speed of life and business today, circumstances rapidly change.  To keep focus on their most important goals, teams must regularly assess how these changes affect their functioning and their mission.  As Jim Collins points out, engagement and focus optimally occur when people have ten-year goals that are a clear stretch for the team, vividly stated so that they are palpable to all team members.  

Gather your team and process the following questions together.  Leaders who are skilled facilitators may wish to lead this process themselves.  Others may wish to use a skilled outside team coach.  Ask:

  • What is our team’s mission?  How has our mission changed, or not, over the recent past?  What kind of team do we need to be?  Where must we be interdependent and collaborative?
  • What characteristics and behaviors do we possess, both individually and as a team that will allow us to fulfill this mission?
  • What characteristics and behaviors, individually and as a team, get in our way?
  • What one action will each individual take to be a better team member, which will likely improve team performance and results?

And our “cynical” team?  We had a chance to explore how the “default setting” of analysis and skepticism mitigated risk.  This was sometimes a good thing, yet it prevented them from raising, discussing, and implementing more agile, innovative solutions.  They re-explored their purpose, re-affirmed what kind of team they needed to be, and, using good data on their style and dynamics, have begun the journey of how to re-enter the changing market.  They are committed to doing regular maintenance and have scheduled their check-ups for the next year.

Patricia Wheeler is the Managing Partner of The Levin Group LLC, a consulting and advisory firm with over 20 years of experience in improving senior team effectiveness, organizational performance, and leadership solutions for CEOs, top executives, and Senior Teams. She spends most of her time working with senior leaders. You can contact Patricia by telephone at 404.377-9408 or by e-mail here.

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