High Performance Teams and the Art of Ensembling
Something new is happening in sports and particularly basketball. I first noticed it when I had the chance to attend several pro basketball games for my business. One of the games I attended featured the Golden State Warriors who, if you know NBA basketball, is one of the more successful teams of late.
In 2013, the Warriors had a mediocre record. In 2014, they hired Steve Kerr as their head coach and their winning percentage jumped to 85% (as of this writing) over two and a half seasons, they won one championship and lost another in the final game all while setting a number of winning records along the way.
Now, I do not follow the NBA closely, so I was not aware of their record-setting play. Still, I felt that something was different about this team, and I decided to do a bit more digging. I learned that I was witnessing a true disruption in the sport.
The Golden State Warriors have tapped into something that allows them to perform at a much higher level than other professional teams. Most sports have a recipe for success. In basketball, the formula for winning has been a tall center, a power forward, a small forward, a shooting guard and a point guard combined with predetermined plays that get the ball to star players through a series of set positions and picks. The Warriors disrupted this approach by emulating the way basketball is played in pick up games in gyms and on playgrounds around the country.
The Warriors utilize a center and four, highly skilled players who are competent at multiple positions and can adjust their role depending on the conditions of the game. While players still have specific assignments, they can all take the lead or drop into support as necessary. They understand the big picture and know how all of the players fit into it. They know each other’s capabilities, are able to read and react instinctively to one another, and recognize when one of them is hot or cold. Each member is responsible not just for their own success but for the success of others, they celebrate when other team members are successful, and they pick up the slack when someone else is having a difficult time. There are no set plays and no real “stars” on this team.
For the other teams, this approach is a huge problem. We can imagine how challenging it is to prepare for a game against the Warriors. Analyzing strengths and weaknesses or identifying patterns of play is a grueling affair as each situation means a different response and the potential variations are nearly infinite. The only way to play them and win is to become like them.
Now, you may say, “That is fine for basketball, but how does this relate to my organization?” The answer is increasing, “In every way! “
In business, like basketball, traditional team structures can be debilitating. The team structures that most businesses operate under were built for the world that existed over hundred years ago (about the time basketball was invented). This was the time of management science where thinkers and doers were separated and mass production was the focus. Today, the business environment is more demanding, more volatile, and operating at a much faster pace. Maintaining the hierarchical structures of the past is like running the traditional plays and expecting a win against the Warriors. The competitors are different now. They are fast and adaptive so traditional businesses must take a new approach. If we look through the Complexity Lens we can see that the Golden State approach is absolutely required for driving high performance in the new reality.
At the risk of mixing a metaphor, I like to call this new high-performance team approach “ensembling” because it reminds me of a jazz ensemble. In good jazz, each person has a role (the trumpet, bass, drum, etc.) and the music provides a framework, but improvisation is the mark of a great group. The members of a great jazz ensemble play off each other and can take the lead of drop into support to make the experience better for the audience and much more fun for them. In different conditions, even the size of the ensemble can change depending who is on hand.
Creating High-Performance Ensembles
Building this capability in an organization can be difficult but can be managed through some simple steps. Here are nine ways to get started with creating high performance teams:
- Identify the Real Structure: Even if you follow a traditional structure officially understand that there is an underlying shadow structure that is actually enabling your organization to operate efficiently. Identify it and utilize it.
- Invest the Time & Energy: While some leaders may not see the value of it at first, the return will become quickly apparent. The time can be reduced by utilizing some of the tools out there for this purpose. My organization has a technique called ASAP High-Performance Team Development (powered through a tool called Sociomapping) that helps make fantastic progress in a few short sessions.
- Value Relationships More Than Structure: Knowing the relationships and organizing in a way to promote this among team members is key to successful ensembling. The better people know and interact, the more intuitive they can be about how the others will perform. They can adapt to each other and raise their performance as a team.
- Train for It: In the book Team of Teams, New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, the authors describe how Navy Seals teams are deposited in the rough seas with nothing but a raft. The team members are all highly skilled and in great physical shape but to complete the exercise they are utterly dependent on each other. No one person can get into the raft without the help of the others nor can they control the raft. Without working together, the whole team ends up back in the ocean. Organizations do not have to be so drastic in their team building efforts, but there are ways of achieving a similar effect with some simple exercises.
- Make the Big Picture Accessible: If the team members know and understand the strategy and what it takes to win, they can adapt what they do to make it happen. Information is gold. Don’t believe that the “need to know” approach somehow protects your business. This only means you are putting blinders on your players and forcing them to see only what is in front of them.
- Make Individual Professional Development a Team Effort: Making individual development goals transparent will increase performance. This is similar to posting player statistics for a sports team. If your team members know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and what each member is working to develop, they can help and support each other. If they are not aware, they make poor assumptions which can create misunderstandings and resentment.
- Pick People with the Right Attitude: Like the best sports teams, don’t assume the star players are the ones that work best in your system. The ability to gel with others and suspend ego is much more important. If members of the team can’t respect others, they should be dropped for those who can no matter if they are the “stars.” Eventually, ego driven players destroy the rhythm of the ensemble.
- Avoid Complicated Structures: This is not to say that structure is not important. It is! But, complicated structures tie the hands of the players and give them excuses to fail. Focus on simple rules and enable them the ability to make tactical changes as they engage.
- Lead and Believe: Recognizing the need for high performance teams is one thing. Believing and having the gumption to carry forward in the face of adversity is true leadership. Your teams will resist at first. Management (the most threatened) will tell you are crazy. Mistakes will occur. But, if you believe and carry forward, it will pay off dividends, and you will win your version of the championship game not once but again and again.
Inspired by new corporate structures, savvy business leaders are shedding their corporate powers for new paradigms. More than one-third (37%) of leaders say they are transforming their business by reorganizing reporting lines and replacing old hierarchies with more flexible arrangements that encourage collaboration and empower employees. – Forbes Challenge or Be Challenged in Association with GAP International
The Counter Argument – the New Zealand All Blacks
The most successful professional sports team in the world is the All Blacks rugby team out of New Zealand. The All Blacks played their first rugby test in 1903. As of November 2015, they have achieved a success rate of 79% since inception. In 2016, their winning percentage is 100% (to date of this writing).
Rugby is a game where size and position matter a lot. The prop forwards need to be big and strong, the hookers need to be smaller and lighter, and the backs need to be fast and elusive. This would seem to be the best argument against the application of ensembling in every situation. Sometimes, specialization is essential. One would be hard pressed to see a player move from prop to hooker to back.
Still, the success of the All Blacks can be attributed to their ability to apply these techniques even in a highly structured organization. This excerpt from an article by a former captain of the All Blacks provides evidence.
World-class teams take this trend [generalization of player capabilities] as far as it can sensibly go. Their members are experts in their specialist tasks but able to turn their hand to other members’ tasks as well. This brings the team enormous benefits in flexibility and responsiveness, but more importantly, it allows for the coherence and wholeness that only teams whose members really understand the nature of other members’ contributions can achieve.
These physical benefits are reinforced by psychological benefits. High-performing team members generalize their attitude to team performance. They see the big picture and how they fit into it. They feel responsible for their performance, for others’ performance, and for team performance. They become leaders. – David Kirk, Former Captain, New Zealand All Blacks via McKinsey Quarterly 1992
Mind you, this was published in 1992 before many of the concepts we are discussing made their way into organizational thinking. Still, the universality of ensembling techniques is clear for those who using the complexity lens. The All Blacks have adopted ensembling for decades, and this has contributed to making them the best team in all professional sports.
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