The majority of the work done in organisations continues to be done by teams, and the value of high performing teams has long been understood. However, we also know that the secret to building and sustaining high performing teams is an elusive one, and requires significant time and energy. There is no shortage of literature, models and frameworks that seek to uncover that mix of characteristics, capabilities and behaviours required for a team to realise its collective potential.
I recently had the privilege of participating in an experience as a member of a newly formed team that provided me with some powerful personal insights and validation of the theory around high performing teams. One of Bendelta’s partners, Rob Rees, is a social entrepreneur, who runs a highly successful program called the Kitchen Challenge. In a nutshell, Rob has created an immersive learning experience, or “practice field”, where participants come together over several weeks to learn about leadership, collaboration and communication, all within the context of a commercial kitchen environment. There are a number of participant models – the one I participated in involved a blend of participants, an equal split between people from disadvantaged backgrounds and from business environments. Right from the start, I was joining the most diverse team I’ve experienced in my professional life; from confident and successful business people to youth struggling with cultural and communication challenges, substance abuse and unemployment.
One useful framework I’ve used with teams draws on Patrick Lencioni’s work and his identification of the five characteristics of cohesive, high performing teams. Each of these became evident over the course of the program, beginning with the need for a collective purpose and vision for a team to work towards. Ours was made clear at the outset – over the course of the program we would learn and work together to build sufficient capability and confidence to deliver a restaurant quality dining experience for a room of 40+ invited guests. Other characteristics identified by Lencioni include the ability to hold each other accountable for outcomes and behaviours, obtaining commitment and buy-in for group decisions, and the ability to have constructive, passionate debate. All of these were critical to our team’s ability to deliver on our vision, whether it was debating and agreeing on our final menu choices, holding each other accountable for our preparation, cooking and cleaning tasks, or having constructive conversations when things got tough, or the inevitable recipe failures occurred.
The final characteristic Lencioni identified, and the foundation for all the others, is trust. When Google undertook Project Aristotle, a highly-cited internal project that studied what distinguished their high performing teams from its regular ones, the researchers identified three characteristics: emotional intelligence, conversational turn taking, and psychological safety. In our Kitchen Challenge, while all three were relevant, arguably the most important was the need to develop psychological safety, creating a high level of trust and a safe place to learn and make mistakes. One of the quickest (and most challenging ways for many of us) to build trust is through being open and sharing our vulnerabilities. In the Google story one particular leader, Matt Sakaguchi, shares a breakthrough moment when he led a conversation with his team that required everyone to share something personal about themselves, kicking off with his own story about dealing with being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. This moment of vulnerability opened the whole team up to sharing their human stories and creating a powerful bond for the future.
The Kitchen Challenge incorporated a number of processes to help break down barriers and build connection and trust between the team members. There were two particular moments that stood out for me: one was the sharing of our personal shields where we talked about the things that are important to us, and the future we wished to create for ourselves. This instantly created a bond between to us as we connected to and empathized with each other’s stories. The other occurred during our check-in process that kicked off each day when one participant shared with the whole team their personal challenges outside of the program dealing with substance abuse and multiple addictions, and how our support and engagement provided him with the motivation to show up every week.
By the time we got to the final day, I don’t think anyone was in any doubt that we’d rise to the challenge and deliver to the vision that had been set for the team on our first day. We had developed the level of psychological safety and team behaviors necessary to enable us to realise our potential and deliver a fabulous experience for our guests.