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How to ensure dependability in high-performing teams

Are you running on empty?  Most of the CEOs and Exec teams that I coach are reporting burn-out.  Remote working is taking its toll.  Their commute’s been swallowed up by Zoom calls, and they’re working more than 12 hours a day without a break. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is affecting productivity – and not for the better.  In fact, Microsoft has recently reported a drop in productivity of 20%. That’s bad!  The UK economy has been trying to get its productivity rates up over the last decade, but in the past six months, there’s been a catastrophic slump. 

To counter this, you urgently need two things. Total clarity over what’s important and intrinsically motivated teams who can depend on each other to get these things done. Otherwise, Parkinson’s Law will kick in, with everyone filling their time with ‘busy work’ but the company going nowhere.

So how do you ensure you can depend on your teams?

Take inspiration from the All Blacks and Red Arrows

When it comes to high performing teams, you can’t get better than the All Blacks.  Think of them when they’re on the pitch. They call a move and everyone does it with perfect synchronisation.  Each player knows where the others are going to be. The ball flows effortlessly from hand to hand to hand. Poetry in motion! They’ve practised each move over and over again.  It’s not about individual brilliance.  They know they’ll only win as a team.  

Ditto the Red Arrows.  Let’s face it – we wouldn’t gasp or hold our breaths when we watch their manoeuvres if we didn’t know they were difficult and dangerous.  When you’re travelling that fast, you need complete certainty that your wingman is where you expect them to be.  And that expectation is in the future – you depend on them to be in the right place when you need them.  After they’ve come down from the air and before they even take off their flying gear, the whole team gathers to watch a video of the display they’ve just completed.  They talk through the plan and whether everyone was in the right place.  And they examine what they need to work on and tactics to improve.

It should be the same for any high performing team in your business.  A collective sense of anticipation that everyone is in sync and responsible for sorting themselves out if they’re not.  The team should know with absolute certainty that they can depend on each other to achieve great things. 

Banish ‘fake harmony’

Yet, so often, businesses have cultures where it’s normal to shirk responsibilities.  This can get stuck in a self-fulfilling cycle.  The more people get away with shirking, the more they will do it.  Anyone with small children knows that there has to be a consequence for bad behaviour.  They’ll always fill the gap you leave by the actions you take.   

In Patrick Lencioni’s model of ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, the root of this was what he called ‘fake harmony’. Where people would agree to do something to avoid conflict but know full well they have no intention of doing it. And inattention to results means that this behaviour becomes entrenched.  If no one notices or cares, promising gets easier and others do the same.  You have to get on top of this because it’s like a disease.  It will poison your business resulting in poor performance and a stultifying of progress.  

Start with the Executive Team

Any culture shift has to come from the top.  So this is where you need to start.  I’ve noticed when I begin to coach Executive teams, that it’s often the first time that they’ve really thought of themselves as a team. You may think that’s bizarre, but it makes sense.  The Head of Sales or Finance may feel their functional team is more important.  They’re not used to compromising, sharing information and being dependable to other senior leaders.  The challenge for them is to take a new perspective and a shift in mindset. 

They need to understand that the Executive team comes first, over and above their own specialism.  Together, they need to come up with a plan rather than doing their own thing.  And, crucially, they need to understand what the rest of the team depend on them to do.

This reminds me of an offsite I did for a company that eventually went bust (although this wasn’t obvious at the time). The CEO pitched his vision to his Executive team all through the day and I facilitated the conversation.  Before he left, I took him through my observations. I said, ‘Your Head of Sales doesn’t believe that engineering will come up with a product.  So he’s not going to try hard to hit targets as he thinks the sales number is made up.  Your Head of Engineering thinks they don’t have to work too hard to develop a product because they know sales won’t sell anything.  There’s no trust in your Exec team.  They’re not on the same page.’ He wouldn’t accept this and wasn’t prepared to do the work needed to sort it out. We parted company. And the rest is history. 

Set clear expectations

Often dysfunctional teams don’t have an exact way of describing their commitments to each other and demonstrating their dependability.  If they don’t know what’s expected of them, how can they show that they’re reliable? This is when I introduce OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to describe individual and company goals.

OKRs nail down ‘Who, What and When’, ensuring clarity on accountability and delivery goals.  Maybe they’re time or activity-based – either way, they’ll show progression towards an objective.   To illustrate their effectiveness, I like to relate them to personal goals.  Say you’ve decided to get fit. Unless you’ve got a proper plan, this isn’t going to happen.  Every person has their own definition of what being fit looks like – their individual expectation.  So, you need to get specific on the goal and the things you need to achieve to get there.  Maybe it’s to run a marathon.  OK – when by?  Two years from now?  Also OK, but how fast do you want to run the marathon?  

You set yourself a target of completing the course within five hours and you start planning out the milestones along the way. These will measure how much faster you’re running at each stage.  You can share your progress with your personal trainer at each juncture and take corrective action if you’re falling short.  

In this way, OKRs will clarify organisational expectations like nothing else.  Everyone will know where they’re heading, how quickly they’re going to get there and their score in real-time.

Introduce structure

By laying over OKRs, you’ll bring structure and clarity to your teams, helping them communicate long and short term goals.  Maybe you start with a timeframe of three years to double your business.  You work out where you’re going to be in three years’ time in terms of sales. The volume you need to sell to get to that goal and the widgets that make up these sales.  Having worked out your strategic differentiators, you can roll down to key priorities for the next 12 months and 90 days. 

Then it’s a case of working out the top three to five priorities over the next quarter for every member of the team.  These need to have key results attached to them that can be measured and tracked by the whole team.  It’s transformational – I love seeing this taking shape.  For the first time, there’s a framework for high performance that’s agreed collectively.  Taking a quarterly approach rather than annual means that everything becomes more immediate and harder to shirk or put off.  And each member of the team has to give a public commitment to achieve their individual goals.

As well as this, if a team member is working on something that isn’t an objective for the quarter, they have to give an acceptable justification.  This is how you get to focus on the things that really matter and avoid time being lost in ‘busy’ work.  When discussing key results, there’s a commitment to when this priority will be done by and what it will look like when it is.   

Set a rhythm (and stick to it)

Then we come to my main mantra – set a rhythm. Shifts in culture take time, effort and repetition. Move your approach to a weekly, monthly and quarterly one rather than annual.  If you measure things on an annual basis, it’s all too easy for things to get put off for another day.  Important priorities get swallowed up in the distractions of a busy job and progress slows to a halt. 

With a quarterly rhythm, your year becomes 90 days and your month becomes a week.  As you discuss your milestones each week, you’re constantly bringing the focus of the team back to things they’re depending on one another to do. This ensures commitments don’t get lost or forgotten.  Even if they are, it’s only for 6 days.

Get clear on accountability

Dependability and accountability are intertwined. Two great tools that make this easier are the Functional Accountability Chart (FACE) and Key Process Flow Map.  Both of these are part of Shannon Susko’s excellent ‘3HAG’ (Highly Achievable Goal) armoury.   The FACE is all about lagging and leading indicators for each function.  Every person who’s accountable to a function will have a job scorecard and accountability for indicators. Once this is thrashed out, we take the key functions that, from end to end, give us quote to cash and map them out on the flow map.   Each process is given a RAG (Red, Amber, Green) score and, on a weekly basis, the team looks at the map to decide which process is most urgent.

This is how you get clarity.  By spelling out the expectations of each team member in great detail.  And working out what your quote to cash process looks like and your company scorecard. These, combined with OKRs, will carry your high performing team consistently towards your 3HAG and the execution of a differentiated strategy.


Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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