Key Steps to Building High Performance Teams

Today I have returned to a topic that is at the core of Recipes for IT: High Performance IT Teams. While tax day did take a bit of time and I am slightly delayed in posting this, I have actually laid out three accompanying posts or pages for today’s post. I think it is a good start on the complex topic of how to build or energize your team and create a high performing team. I look forward to your comments! Best, Jim

Building High Performance Teams: The essence of being a leader is defining a vision and compelling others to pursue and achieve that vision. Recently a good colleague relayed an article in Harvard Business Review describing how it is more difficult today to be a outstanding leader due to a number of factors including the wider availability of knowledge and easier access to each other as well as a reduced perception of glory of institutions that leaders represent.

And while I would agree these factors may make things more difficult to be a great leader, I tend to believe that we have just as many, if not more, good and decent men and women who are effective and even outstanding leaders today as ever in history. But because the circumstances are less dire (e.g., there is not a world war to require a Churchill) and because the competence has risen (yes, management is a far more analyzed and practiced field than ever before), there are not the towering gaps between the best and the average that might have previously been. So with a positive outlook on the competence of today’s managers and leaders, I have assembled a set of practices that I have leveraged or I have seen peers or other senior IT leaders use to build high performance IT teams.

For the emerging senior IT leader with his or her senior management team, can use these practices to build a high performing team, in the following steps:

Today’s post covers how to set such a vision, then define and cascade the goals to match your vision, align the incentives, and set the proper expectations and behaviors. And I have constructed pages with links above on the next three steps.  Subsequent posts will cover the remaining steps.

I think the aspiration of building a high performing team is a lofty, worthwhile, and achievable vision. If you have ever participated in a high performance team at the top of their game, in other words: a championship team, then you know the level of professional reward and sense of accomplishment that accompanies such membership. And for most companies that rely significantly on IT, if their IT team is a high performing team, it can make a very large difference in their products, their customer experience, and their bottom line. But if you are to set out to build such a team it must be for a vision that is more than just the team, it must be to enable your company to achieve achieve outsized goals of appropriate scale and aspiration. You will not attract or retain top talent and inspire others if you and your company have only modest goals.

So, first, consider your company’s goals and then outline what IT must become and must accomplish to enable corporate success of major significance. And the draw out the IT vision and goals that will enable that success. Do not get trapped by cloaking your vision in uninspired definitions (e.g., don’t state your vision as ‘ Save $40M in costs’ instead ‘ Become top quartile in efficiency in IT for our industry and company size by 201x’). You can only state your vision in this manner, of course, if you mean it. So, I will assume you have true aspirations for your team to become a world class IT organization and you will meld those goals with your company’s goals for a compelling vision. Further, consider IT goals to match both your company’s service and operations goals as well as product and innovation. Make sure the vision you define for IT drives both areas as well looking to a two to three year horizon for the target. (Rebuilding or energizing a team usually takes such a time period to truly reach high performance and you must lift the sight line to the horizon to ensure your team does not get trapped in just extending the every day steps.)

Once you have defined a compelling vision, the next step is to set the right goals to achieve the vision. The right goals will logically cascade as mileposts on the journey to high performance as well as be inevitable products of achieving corporate excellence. I recommend framing such goals as the primary measures by year that you will determine if you are to achieve the required progress to reach your vision. For the upcoming year, it is often worthwhile to set quarterly milestones as well. These measures should be relevant, well-defined, as quantifiable as possible and they should be set at stretch but achievable levels. If, for example, your vision is for your company to become an industry leader in service quality then you would want to set cascaded goals where the IT team dramatically improves its quality (so the systems now enable much better customer service for the company) as well as delivers key workflow improvements or feature enhancements to enable the company to lift its service directly (e.g., such as the package tracking capability that Federal Express uses to ensure extremely high quality service). Ensure that your measures are not uni-dimensional, that is, they only cover one aspect of what your company and thus your team must achieve. There should be clear focus in one area (e.g. quality and operational excellence, or product feature, or speed, or innovation) but it should not be a the full neglect of the other areas. Further, you should set at least modest goals for both cost and risk, otherwise these could become risk areas as your team pursues only one facet.

Once you have defined the right, cascading goals you will need to reinforce the goals with a set of behaviors and expectations as well as aligned incentives. And the approach to achieving the goals should reflect the strengths of the teamFor example, if one of your goals is to achieve outstanding quality then measures for the goals may include process definition work and metrics implementation if your team has low maturity or jump right to leveraging already reported metrics and driving improved feedback cycles if of high maturity. Further though, if your team has an engineering bias you may approach the solution through robust root cause and better design processes whereas if the team has a strong collaboration approach you may reach the same quality goal through better peer reviews and additional coordination and validation of changes.

More importantly though is to reinforce your goals through aligned behaviors and expectations and most importantly, incentives. For example, if you are looking to drive more predictable project delivery for the business than having incentives that reward firefighting for some of your staff when they contributed to the potential issues in the first place will tremendously undermine how much the rest of the staff support your goals. Similarly, if you reward those who while delivering a particular set of results cause significant damage to other team members or ignore other standards or principles, than you will minimize the likelihood that such principles or standards will be followed in the future. It is important, as a leader to reward not just factor in the results but more critically how the effort was achieved. Often in organizations, those who quietly and effectively carry out significant projects with excellent team behaviors are neglected by management when good leaders would call out the very same individuals for exemplary performance. Quite simply, your smartest team members, will observe what you reward, and if you do not reinforce the values you are looking to achieve (productivity, quality, initiative, etc), you will not get the changes desired.

Most importantly though, your behaviors as leaders must reflect the very same expectations you have outlined for your team. And you must demonstrate a tenacious focus on the goals and vision you have defined. Your behaviors must reinforce your expectations. Every day there are conflicts and setbacks that strong leaders would turn these into episodes that strengthen rather than weaken your team. Understand, that when you lead by example, you will make a daily difference and demonstrate to your team what should be done. Your focus, discipline, thoughtfulness, and sacrifice for the team and goals will not be lost and will result in better effort all around.

In sum, it is important to define a compelling vision and establish the right goals and incentives, but at each stage of the journey, there will be key moments where you as a leader will reinforce the vision, goals and principles you have set or you will undermine them. As a leader, perhaps we can easily step into the role of setting a direction, sponsoring a program or making  a major decision, but for all the visibility and importance of these actions, the time we spend interacting and communicating and coaching your team will determine the effectiveness and reach of our goals.

Now with the steps above you will have the foundation to build a high performance team and deliver sustainable and outstanding results.

What steps or approaches have you used to successfully define a vision and goals for a team? What would you change to this approach?

Best, Jim Ditmore

About Jim D

Jim has worked in the IT field for over 25 years and as a senior leader for over 15 years. He has successfully turned around a number of IT shops to become high performing teams and a competitive advantage for their companies.

This entry was posted in Best Practices, Building High Performance Teams, Vision and Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Key Steps to Building High Performance Teams

  1. Jean O. says:

    Jim, I am interested in your view regarding having consistent IT delivery methodlogy standards across an IT department as part of further building high performance teams. An example of this would be applying resources to train the entirety of the IT staff in Agile practices, so they would all be operating from the same baseline. Thanks.

    • Jim D says:


      I think that is a very good thought on comprehensive training for your team. I would actually recommend though a few slightly different topics:
      – for your development team I would perhaps do 5 modules of training:
      — one on project best practices and your project methodology and tools (and templates) and you can also add your SDLC and/or agile as you suggest
      — one on requirements analysis and your standard documentation templates
      — one on design and coding best practices and the architecture you have blueprinted (e.g. including say and SOA approach)
      — and perhaps one on testing AND inspections and how to ensure you trace requirements through to test.

      For your infrastructure team: I recommend a similar agenda but with the focus on an IELC (Infrastructure engineering lifecycle) and on engineering for quality, cost and time to market and then measuring themselves against industry best practices and metrics (benchmarking).

      Training your team to have a strong common base of skills and dialect as you suggest would be a good thing. They just have to recognize that they now have one or several additional tools in their belt and that they will still need others (even customer ones) to solve some of the problems they will face.

      Thanks for the comment! Best, Jim

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