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Building High Performance Teams to Drive Innovation

High-performance teams are not desirable in achieving innovation and speed – they are essential. However, most companies underestimate or overlook the benefit and opportunity that come from high-performance teams. In our work with world-class technology companies, high-performance teams are, quite frankly, part of their DNA and contribute to their competitive advantage. There are many examples of dysfunctional teams that have heroically pushed products over the finish line, but what many do not acknowledge is the opportunity cost of sub-optimal team performance, both in hard costs (delayed revenue, higher product costs, and higher support costs for low-quality products that reach customers) and soft costs (poor product reviews, lack of innovation, team fatigue, and low morale).

We have identified four steps for creating high-performance teams that you can implement across your organization. If you are ready to incorporate high-performance teams as part of your company’s DNA and look forward to seeing a measurable improvement in your ability to quickly innovate and deliver winning products to market, here are the four things you should do:

1. Create well-defined roles and responsibilities for the cross-functional team.

Defining team roles and responsibilities seems like a trivial task that is more bureaucratic than useful. But the lack of clarity around cross-functional deliverables and dependencies is a key driver in missed opportunities to reduce cycle time, increased frequency of unmanaged gaps, and team chaos. Especially as companies grow in size and expand geographically, a critical characteristic of high-performance teams is well-defined roles and responsibilities. Having clarity around who is doing what and when will free up teams to focus on the work required to innovate and deliver products to market. The chapter “Avoiding Gaps Across Functions” provides a tool for graphically defining key deliverables for the cross-functional teams by development phase. This tool will allow you to clarify what your team will deliver in each phase and will help you anticipate and plan for longer-term deliverables. You may also want to consider creating a Team Wheel (from the chapter “Ensuring Project Teams Are Properly Staffed”) for each project to clarify roles at the project level too.

2. Implement a core-team model.

Implementing a core-team model is the most effective way to optimize a project team’s performance, identify opportunities to reduce cycle time, and ensure that the broader team (often called the extended team) is functioning efficiently. It is particularly critical when the team is large and geographically dispersed. The core-team model consists of four to six functional leads, typically from program management, product management, engineering, design, manufacturing, and quality assurance. They share the responsibility of delivering the project within the defined objectives. With an emphasis on strong leadership skills, the team can serve as an effective nucleus for driving execution, escalating project issues, and managing cross-functional dependencies.  This core team, who meets on a frequent basis, is responsible for communicating to the extended team which is either geographically isolated or in secondary functions.

3. Empower the core team with a high level of authority.

Many times, executives are hesitant to give teams too much leeway in project decision making, and teams are reluctant to accept the responsibility. In world-class companies, we see a consistent trend of pushing a high level of authority to teams. If you set a culture of team accountability across your organization and empower your team to drive daily decision making in support of the overall objectives of the project, you will see measurable gains in their ability to creatively innovate and shorten cycle time. While there are some circumstances where “command-and-control” leadership is appropriate, we’ve found that if you use it as the norm, it will result over time in lower accountability, demotivated teams, and delays.

In addition to utilizing a core-team model with well-defined roles and responsibilities, implementing the tools of Product Innovation Process, Boundary Conditions Diagram, and Out-of-Bounds Map will allow you to manage to a framework that defines the boundaries of the team’s decision-making authority. These tools will empower your team to move the project forward and provide them with an escalation mechanism when an issue exceeds their authority. They provide a framework for establishing team accountability and are flexible to allow executives to customize the authority based on project risk, team experience, or cost risk. Lastly, driving responsibility to the team is a strategic investment in attracting the best talent. High-performance teams consist of high performers – both individually and as a team. High performers thrive on accountability, so if you push accountability to the team, you will find over a short period of time an increased ability to attract the best people.

4. Create a culture of trust and collaboration.

Teams can only achieve high performance if they work in an environment of trust and collaboration. Anything less means that individuals will shift their focus from the common good to their own survival. A true test is examining what happens in your organization when bad things happen. When the schedule is going to slip, a quality issue has stopped the manufacturing line, or the product cost is exceeding the margin target, how does your organization respond? Teams achieve high performance when they know they can deliver bad news (with recommendations for mitigation and resolution) free of politics and without gaming the data or sugarcoating the message. They achieve high performance because they work in an environment that addresses challenges through collaboration and teamwork. They focus on solving the problem, not finding the guilty and blaming them. And because you’ve instilled in them the authority and trust, they do this far faster than those teams that work in an environment of distrust and blame.

Creating high-performance teams will be a competitive advantage. And in the end, your ability to rapidly innovate and deliver products to market is in the hands of people, and the best way we have found to harness the best of people is through high performance teams.

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