Making Progress in a Mature Team

I came across a particular challenge recently working with a public sector manager who led a pretty high performing team. The team which is pretty mature and stable were acknowledged to be doing a good job – but the manager was finding it hard to find ways to further improve performance.

One of the challenges that has to be confronted here is complacency. The belief that it is enough to keep doing what we have always done. This carries with it two risks that I can see. Firstly, other teams will continue to improve and suddenly what used to look like good performance becomes mediocre as others reach higher standards.

Secondly performance might tail off in real terms as the job becomes less challenging and team members start to ‘sleepwalk’ their way through the work.

Urgency is not an issue for people who have been asked all their lives to maintain the current system like a softly humming Swiss watch. This is a recipe for good – but not great performance.

So what to do?

You need to ensure a sense of urgency and importance around continual improvement. Always looking for ways to get more done, more effectively at lower cost. Never believing that good is good enough. Always pushing at the boundaries of excellence.

For managers who value getting things done the ‘right’ way this desire to continually push for innovation and change can feel uncomfortable. They sometimes value consistency over excellence. Similarly managers who value strong relationships can feel very uncomfortable asking already solid performers to produce more.

You should also recognise that for an already high performing team the challenge it to move closer to the leading (bleeding?) edge of performance. Our performance is good – but is it really the best? What behaviours and skills could help to taken our work to an even greater level? Care should be taken here in working out what this ‘next level’ looks like. Sometimes it might be about more efficient practice (costs down). Sometimes more effective practice (value up). Sometimes a combination of both. But we have to be able to answer the question ‘In which direction does progress lie?’. This can take time and energy and is not likely to happen in change resistant teams and cultures. It will also require some tolerance of risk and failure in pursuit of excellence which can be difficult in risk averse cultures.

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4 Responses

  1. The ‘true measure of success’ is an interesting concept. It is usually translated as:
    how big are our profits (or small our losses) or
    did we get an extra star from the inspectors or
    did we achieve our social objectives.

    Occasionally I find a group of people who are purely interested in the pursuit of becoming the best that they can be. In a training session this week we got close to it – and I watched a small group thinking about whether this might just be something that is possible and worth taking seriously in the business!

  2. The true measure of success is calculated by what we actually achieve against what we are truly capable of achieving.

    Stretch, self defined stretch, breeds aspiration for excellence.

  3. Andy – in this case the acknowledgement came from peers rather than targets – although your point is well made. I too have seen targets breed a ‘minimum acceptable’ culture – although I don’t beleive this was the case in this team.

  4. Mike – you reveal the problem in the first line – a public sector manager. Who acknowledges the current good performance – government targets or the public they actually serve? If the former, then it’s an example of the complacency that targets can breed – if you’re meeting them, why bother to do more?
    “High-performing” teams need to challenge themselves by asking if they can demonstrate that high performance in the eyes of the public. Therein lies the real opportunity for continuous improvement!

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