55M - People Advisory Business

High Performance - what really matters?

Posted by Ben on Friday, May 6, 2022

In 2022, people are time poor. Teams are expected and required to form and perform quickly, if not instantaneously. Because no individual can know everything, teams – whether within organisations or society more generally – must harness the power of the collective if they are to succeed. This means drawing on the diverse perspectives, background and technical skills of all team members, who likely do not know each other but must come together and deliver. How does this happen? It is easy to fall into the trap of allowing teams time to form and ‘bond’, but there is a real risk that this allows poor habits to develop. There is a tendency then to fall back on tokenistic tag lines, instead of understanding and concentrating on the conditions that are required for high performance. Is an early focus on setting these conditions the answer?

I have always been told that sport and business are heavily aligned and that the soft skills involved to be successful are highly transferable. As I have started to move into the business space, I am increasingly aware that there is much each can learn from the other. Let me provide some context. 

The longer I spent in cricket, the busier the calendar became and therefore time spent with a particular team has diminished. Growing up, my heroes seemed to play a home series in the summer and an away series in the winter. Some one day games were played before or after the tests, but the schedule was easy to follow and it seemed like each game had relevance. The team had culture and values that seemed to be aligned at the time with the Australian population and the players were adored. Fast forward 15 years to the present and the whole landscape has changed. There are new formats: T20 cricket has exploded here and overseas. Players now can jump between national duty, domestic cricket, county cricket and franchise cricket in multiple competitions around the world, all in the space of 12 months. I played for 16 professional teams across eight different countries, all with their own unique way of doing things. Similarly, the business landscape has changed. Less often do we see career employees who stay at the same company or organisation and work their way through the hierarchy to management. Instead, employees are frequently on the search for the next opportunity or the next challenge. 

Ben Dunk with the Lahore Qalandars - Pakistan Super League 2022 Champions

Within the teams I have represented, some had the benefit of time: a five month preseason to train and plan, and to get to know each other, our families, our ambitions and our weaknesses. This helped us to understand one another, and to invest in each other’s success as well as the team’s. This was all done before taking the field for our first competitive match.  I’ve also been a part of teams where the players got together 48 hours before our first match, exchanged a few messages on a WhatsApp group, trained once together and then started the matches. In business, almost no team has five months together before performance is expected.  In that context, the pertinent question is, how do you team in a traditional method (that is, aligning the team’s values and expectations with an individual’s) when your players (or team members in business) haven’t got time to spend 6 months together before performance is expected or required of them? 

Business looks to sport as an industry where teaming is done well, which in my experience, isn’t always incorrect. Often teams are praised for “having a great culture” or because “they are building something special”. My observation is these comments are almost always directed at the teams who are experiencing success. But what comes first, the success or the culture? The best description of a culture I’ve read was using a garden as metaphor. A team, no different a garden, should be made of different individuals or plants. For them to grow and be at their best, they all need different conditions. Some need constant watering and attention, some need sunlight or space while others need shade from the elements. How do you grow all these plants (humans) to get your culture or garden to be at its best? You treat them individually, getting to know what is required for them to be at their best and providing it. Each of them is playing their role in the look and feel of the overall garden. It isn’t a one size fits all approach.

This takes time, and as mentioned before, we don’t always have it. In these circumstances, how do we align our team and its members to come together quickly to perform before we are fully grown plants that can look after ourselves? 

One approach is to lean on the ‘traditional’ values of sporting teams across the country  - concepts like ownership, respect, hard work, family and perhaps my favourite, elite honesty. The problem is that they are stereotypes, and more often than not, are put together with some butcher’s paper and marker pens during a team bonding session. Values are deeply personal concepts that differ for everyone, and it takes time and trust for people to share their genuine thoughts and views about them. Printing them out and slapping them on a door or website is a crutch that is reverted to in the absence of time and trust and should be avoided when trying to build a genuine high performing unit. 

So how do we ensure a high-performing team when we no longer have months for team members to get to know each other before getting down to the task at hand? 

Ben Dunk playing for Australia in T20

I believe you can align a team through goals and vision, and then cultivate the culture while the work is underway. The first seemingly obvious step is to assemble the right people (as few as possible), with the diverse skills necessary to achieve the required outcome and an understanding of who is part of the team, and who is responsible for what. Then, much like a cricket team that assembles 48 hours before the first game, it is crucial that the team shares and aligns on a view of what success looks like, and sees it as an important, meaningful and achievable. This is unity of purpose. 

Then, provided that there is a supportive context, where team members feel safe culture and values can develop. A supportive context might include the availability of expert coaching or educational tools, and appropriate reward processes that are aligned to the purpose. Returning to the garden analogy, it is much like the care and attention that is required to ensure that each plant has the environment and conditions it needs to thrive, and that weeds (bad habits) are not permitted to take over. 

Whether it is sport, business or in the garden, we know that success isn’t guaranteed. Failure is a part of high performance and even with the best intentions, we do fail - we don’t meet our own expectations or those of others just like not all plants grow at the same rate. But what we can do is stack the deck in our favour by ensuring teams are bonded by the conditions above, rather then hastily put together values. Our values are something that we should be proud of and teams within sport and business need not only to respect that we are different individuals but also embrace it to fully unlock the potential of high performance. 

*55M leverages and recognises the research of Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman from Harvard University on the conditions for high performing teams for all our team engagements.

Final thoughts from Ben

Since joining 55M, combining my experience as an international cricketer and research into what makes a high performing team, I have realised that most teams I've been involved with haven't understood the conditions of high performance. Even the successful teams have been successful because they have had a host of gun individuals carrying the rest. This isn't the recipe for sustained high performance in any industry. And is winning our only measure of success? Did we meet the expectations of all stakeholders? The sponsors, the fans, the organisation, the players?
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