High performing teams….the Industry buzz word.

Team members with the highest qualifications, the smartest, the fastest, ..…. does that make your team high performing?

In a series of simulations with the same company I facilitated recently, I analyzed the results. All teams were put into the same simulated environment. It was interesting to see 5 different teams with 5 different results. I investigated the similarities and variations, especially what made the difference, and made some interesting observations on teamwork.

Simulating for team success in transformations

An international NGO was adopting ITIL®4 as part of an IT organizational transformation initiative. The initiative is driven by changing business demands for improved communication with the users, end-to-end capabilities, quality and reliability of IT services, including a shorter time to market of innovations and a shorter turn-around of outages. At the same time ITIL4 was seen as a way of helping break down SILOs and to start fostering a more collaborative culture within the IT organization. All teams were sent onto ITIL Foundation training and each training included a MarsLander business simulation workshop to help delegates translate theory into practice and at the same time capture concrete improvement actions that end-to-end teams would agree to adopt and apply. The ITIL theory, exercises and the simulations would be related back to the problems the organization where trying to solve, and how to use the ITIL theory in that context.

The Marslander simulation is a dynamic, interactive workshop. It is a form of ‘experiential learning’ or ‘learning-by-doing’. In the simulation teams play the business and IT roles in the Mission control room of the MarsLander mission. As a team they need to balance increasing demands and opportunities from different stakeholders. Innovating new products and service offerings, optimizing existing business value, managing technical debt as well as aligning and improving end-to-end value streams. As a team they are faced with running business as usual as well as transforming to new agile ways of applying ITSM using ITIL®4 concepts. All of this remotely! The simulation is played in a number of game rounds, this allows teams to practice ‘progress iteratively with feedback’ which is a core capability that underpins a ‘Continual Learning and Improving’ culture.

Teams working is not the same as Team working

It was clear that team composition strongly influenced the team performance. The performance of each team member is important in a team. It does not matter if the team has a few star performers. If there are some who fall behind in the team, the results are influenced. How the team handled the differences of individual members was interesting. The teams that were more
successful team members were:

Open: Such as daring to ask questions, asking for, or offering help, giving constructive feedback, clarifying agreements, confirming understanding, clarifying roles and responsibilities.

Trusting: The basis for this openness was Trust. Knowing they would not be laughed at for asking questions, knowing that the team would stick to what they had agreed, that there would be no blame for making mistakes but a willingness to help improve. Respecting each other’s input, letting each other finish talking.

Teams that were not used to working together or teams that were not used to being open did not dare to ask questions or give feedback. Teams that were not used to trusting were less likely to give open, honest feedback, ask for help or ask probing exploratory questions. This often meant difficulties in arguing suggestions, which stifle good ideas for improvement. When people were continually being interrupted – lack of respect for all input – there was less willingness to be open and offer new ideas and input. This creates a vicious circle in which new ideas and a willingness to explore and experiment die out. Meaning that change can take longer and be more painful. Often teams themselves are unable to break out of this cycle.

Developing high performing teams

Different teams have different levels of maturity and different capabilities in terms of open communication, trust and the ability to embrace change. As Thomas Reids once said, – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link-* So, in the context of a team this proverb could be paraphrased as ‘a team is only as strong as the capability of the individual team members’. More important a team is only as strong as the curiosity and willingness to explore together, to ask questions and more importantly, to respect, listen and understand each other. It is crucial to learn together, make sure introvert people can also add their ideas. Make sure all the intelligence in the individuals is explored and improvement is done iteratively. What helped the teams overcome the challenges of being open and creating a trusting environment was having a coaching role. A coach to not only help with the instrumental aspects of new ways of working (such as how to visualize work, how to map a value stream) but also coaching in communication and collaboration skills and behaviors. Are team members capable of adapting? How are we caring? Mental health matters. Fear uncertainty and doubt matters, is everybody in the team sharing their doubts and ideas? Is everybody listening?

A team is only as strong as the capability of the individual team members and the trust and openness to acknowledge this to learn and improve together

That was the reason we started working with serious gaming. Teams struggle in learning, and reflecting together, but it is key to transformations, as people are the driving force in transformation. By experimenting, experiencing and learning in a safe environment serious gaming is used as an accelerator, to visualize, create buy-in and adoption of new ways of working, breaking down silos and creating end-to-end improvements with a higher sense of responsibility. In order to engage and connect teams, inspire and create movement but above all generate energy and have fun. In a business simulation participants experiment, explore, reflect, and learn together what ultimately make them perform better as a team.

*First appeared in Thomas Reid’s “Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man,” published in 1786; the full idiom “a chain is no stronger than its weakest link” was first printed in Cornhill Magazine in 1868.


Written by Claudine Koers (Quint)