The Secret To Building High-Performing Teams by [email protected]

Mario Moussa on Building High-Performing Teams

The Secret To Build High-Performing Teams

What makes certain teams excel and others perform below par? In a new book, Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance, Mario Moussa, Madeline Boyer and Derek Newberry divulge the surprising secrets to developing a high-performance team and the common mistakes groups make that hinder their cooperation.

Jeffrey Klein, executive director of the McNulty Leadership Program at Wharton, recently spoke with Moussa, a Wharton Executive Education fellow, about his new book.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Jeffrey Klein: Mario, I’ve known you for some time, and your interests range from influence to negotiation to organizational performance. This is a book about teams — specifically, committed teams. What led you to write this book now?

Mario Moussa: For the past three years, my co-authors and I have been involved in Wharton’s Executive Development Program (EDP). Three times a year, EDP brings in around 60 executives from around the world. They come here, they take courses, they take sessions about leadership and finance and marketing and so on, and then there is a very intense immersive simulation.

The third part of the program is teamwork. They form into teams, and they compete with each other for two weeks … within the simulation. The environment is very realistic, so tensions run high. There is euphoria, lots of competition, lots of collaboration.

The EDP is a living laboratory in which we have had the opportunity to observe, as we like to say, 100 teams forming and competing with each other [over] more than 100 simulated years. We like to think of this living laboratory as an opportunity to do a lot of fieldwork. Over that time, we have gathered lots of data, and all that data now is captured in our book, in a framework that we call the 3×3.

Klein: If I’m not mistaken, your two co-authors, Derek Newberry and Madeline Boyer, both come at this work from [a viewpoint based on their] anthropological training. So it must have been heaven for them to watch 100 teams forming and evolving over time.

Moussa: That’s exactly it. Derek and Maddy were trained as cultural anthropologists — or business anthropologists, really. Then we work with a number of other observers. We call this the High-Performing Team [HPT] of observers. Most of them are trained social scientists or anthropologists.

What they excel in is observing. We love to quote the great philosopher, Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Most of the time, we’re not watching because we’re distracted. So we’ve really focused in on the experience that these teams have had, as I said, forming and competing, and we’ve learned a lot from that.

Klein: You mentioned the 3×3 Framework, which has come out of these observations. Can you describe that for us a little bit?

Moussa: What we found is, when they’re getting started on a task, high-performing teams focus on three things: goals, roles and norms. That’s the first part of the 3×3. If you look at the team’s literature, you will find versions of those basic foundations again and again. So I wouldn’t say that was all new, although we’ve streamlined the framework a little bit, in that respect. But we also find that teams need to continually revisit those foundations in the three steps that we mentioned in the title. So step one is to commit to shared goals, roles and norms.

“High-performing teams focus on three things: goals, roles and norms.”

Klein: What I hear in that is, there is something about being explicit about what those goals, roles and norms are.

Moussa: Absolutely — [being] explicit and having a good conversation about having those three things. Maybe we could come back to, how do have a really good conversation? Then, given that there are all kinds of pushes and pulls in the typical workday … you may be working on multiple projects. You have commitments outside of work. So you’re distracted, and you’re going in many different directions. Over time, naturally, almost inevitably there is drift on teams, around those goals, roles and norms. So you need to revisit them. We found that high-performing teams check in from time to time.

Klein: What does that look like?

Moussa: It’s going back to those original commitments: What do we want to do? How do we want to work together? How are we going to share information, make decisions, and so on and so forth? Are we still committed to those things initially that we talked about? If not, how are we going to close the gap between what we say we want to do and what we’re actually doing? Which leads to the third step, which we call “close,” and the key activity there is closing the gap — closing the saying-doing gap, as we like to put it.

What we found is that the most effective way to close that gap is in small steps … targeted at really specific changes, with attention paid to the environment in which the team is working and attempts made to create an environment that supports taking those small steps, and then being realistic about what you can do and what you can’t do. We like to say realistic optimists do better than pure optimists, because realistic optimists think ahead about what can get in the way of doing what they want to do.

So the 3×3, in sum, is initial conversation about goals, roles and norms, and then checking in from time to time, and then working to close the gap between what you’re actually doing and what you say you want to do, and then doing that again and again and again. That’s an iterative process. The key to doing that well is having a really good conversation or really paying attention to what is happening on the team. It turns out that it’s really hard to pay attention.

Klein: Absolutely. As I think about the teams that I’m a part of now and the teams that I’ve been a part of, I’m aware that in some of those teams, those conversations felt like they were easier, they were expected. In other teams, they were much harder. What suggestions do you have for leaders of teams, and for teammates, who want to make sure that they’re able to have these kinds of check-in conversations?

Moussa: [There are] three things that I would offer as guidelines. One is, pay attention to style. We all have different styles — some of us are extroverted, some introverted. Some of us love conflict, some of us don’t, and so on.

Two, have one-on-ones. A very helpful way to build relationships is through one-on-one dialogues. Not that you don’t want to have group dialogue as well, but if you just have group dialogue, sometimes the group dynamics become so complex, it’s just hard to manage.

Then I would say, focus on a few things versus a lot of things. Teams often get overwhelmed because they are just trying to do too much, or their goals are too big. So keep it simple, keep it manageable. If you do all those things, you tend to have a better conversation than if

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