Centaur Stage is a weekly video series produced by Cosmic Centaurs, and this second season is all about the magic of teams. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 3:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, is joined by some incredible guests who share their insights, opinions, and perspectives about what makes teams cohesive, high-performing, and happy.
In this second episode of the season, under the team dynamics chapter, Marilyn and Sam Yeats explore the data behind high-performing teams. They discuss what it means for a team to be high-performing, cross-functional teams. They spoke about the metrics used to measure teamwork, as well as the role of leaders in creating outstanding teams.
Watch the full episode here.
Sam Yeats is a driven entrepreneur with over 20 years in technology and business transformation experience, and he is the founder of TeamForm, a platform that helps leaders to plan, build and manage cross-functional teams to improve work outcomes and reduce costs. It also enables leaders to make data-driven informed decisions about their organization. As the Founder of TeamForm, Sam has been working with high-growth startups and large enterprises on a mission to help them create the conditions where their teams can do their best work.
About The Topic
Marilyn introduced the topic by noting that organizational level data and individual level data around employee metrics, efficiency, productivity, and engagement, is more or less widely available in organizations, but it tends to be focused on that group level or individual, and rarely on the teams themselves. “It does feel counterproductive because so much of how organizations function is centered around teams. The question we want to answer today is how can you drive your teams towards astounding results when you don't actually measure these components?”
What is a high-performing team?
Marilyn kicked off the episode by diving into the concept of outstanding teams, and asked Sam how he would define a high-performing team. “A high performing team has this unique and differentiated sense of purpose and mission. What are team members there to solve for? Why are they gathered as this unit, how do they seek out and try and understand the work that they're doing, and how does it support their customers or how does it help progress the mission of the company? That's quite a unique thing that differentiates them from other teams”, Sam answered.
He explained, “I think also when you look at the people in a team, they feel like a team. On a sports field, you see players that have trained together and work together. They celebrate their wins, they come together when they lose, and they face challenges together. I think that's another key aspect. They also have complementary skill sets”.
Sam elaborated that high-performing teams are less reliant on other teams, and deliver value at a fast pace.
“We look for traits in these teams; are they ambitious? Do they want to deliver results? I think some of the key characteristics are learning, adapting, pivoting, changing, being always really clear in everything that they are talking about, what work they're doing, and how it aligns to the outcome.”
Marilyn then asked Sam about how teams can form to create their sense of identity and what they are really here to contribute for. He noted that there are many different ways, sometimes teams are put together, and sometimes they are created naturally, by team members working in the same space or by having a Slack channel. Sam remarked, “I think a really important part about forming a team identity is that it's about the team coming together and actually taking the time out to define what is their identity, their purpose and writing that down together, challenging each other, pushing each other, stretching and coming up with that mission statement as a team. Often a team name or logo can be helpful as well.”
“You mentioned that, for you, high-performing teams are teams that are able to deliver without heavily relying on other teams. Talk to me more about that, and how do you help organizations think about who needs to be on that team so that they can accomplish things with some level of independence”, asked Marilyn.
Sam answered by observing that you need a sense of the networks of teams in an organization - how do team members interact, what are the relationships between teams that are important to solidify and define, so that they can be effective. “If you're a new member to an organization, where would you go to see the teams that exist within cross-functional teams?”
Before continuing on discussing cross-functional teams, Marilyn shared a definition of them with the audience: “Cross-functional teams are formed of at least three members that belong to different functional entities that are working together to reach a common goal. These members have various functional skills and experience, and they come from different sections within the organization” (definition from an article written by Laura Dinca and Carmen Voinescu). Marilyn then asked Sam what advantages cross-functional teams bring, especially in remote settings and during the pandemic.
Sam first noted that there are many different types of teams - there are those that are defined by being cross-functional, but there are also those that just have collaboration. He elaborated, “if you're an organization that hasn't formally moved into agile cross-functional teams, then your organization is likely already made-up of people that are collaborating together, working together across functional bounds to get things done. So, I think this movement into cross-functional teams has helped define that unit and also, it's allowing it to start. I think organizations need to look at that lens in their early days”. Sam added, “the way leaders look at their organization is hardwired to who works for who, but I haven't seen many organizations that have metrics that show us the diversity for the people that are actually working together. As soon as organizations can understand the value that teams and especially cross-functional teams bring in, they should really prioritize looking at that, and work to improve those conditions”.
Permanence of Team Membership
Marilyn mentioned the importance of the permanence of team membership, which is widely referred to in academia and which she previously discussed with Connie Hadley in the first Centaur Stage Season 2 episode. Marilyn said, “people who are members of a team for a longer time, and teams that are more stable in their membership - we see that in agile methodologies as well - tend to become higher performing teams from the connections that they form, the level of mutual knowledge that they develop, and their ability to just work really well together. Yet in large enterprises, not just because of reorganizations, which in and of themselves occur all the time, but the constant change in who works with whom and who you're collaborating with, permanent team membership doesn't tend to be something that we see often in those teams”. Marilyn then asked Sam about his thoughts on the importance of permanence in team membership.
Sam said, “like a sporting team or any other type of team, it takes three to six months to bond and to define their purpose, to get into a cadence. Organizations need to be able to see that, and measure how long people have been working with each other. Have they actually given them a chance of success, and are they actually promoting the use of stable teams, and only disrupting when they need to? They need to ask themselves, who are their teams, do the team members even know they are on the team? We need to start measuring this, so we can be looking at those dynamics, and allow the teams to get to a point where they can actually deliver great value for the company. Being aware of that, and having the patience to be able to see teams through to that stability, is really critical if you want them to deliver great results”.
Answering a question from the audience, Sam pointed out that one of the biggest challenges cross-functional teams face especially in remote settings are funding models - it can break a team apart, because a budget can expire and half a team can vanish overnight without the organization being conscious of that. “It is really important for leaders, once they can see these teams are established, to think about what is the operating system or the operating model of the organization, and how they are going to reconfigure some of these elements, to promote stable teams and to allow cross-functionality”, he explained.
Marilyn agreed with Sam - and talked about how funding can cause issues in teams, because organizations usually plan unified and simplified budget bucket plans. Sam said,
“data can be a great change catalyst to help finance and other functions think about how they could do things differently. You need to think about how you use that complexity and its data to actually drive the change that's going to set these teams up for success”.
Data in Teams
Moving on to the topic of data, Marilyn asked Sam “what are the basic data points or metrics that you think one should collect around teams, in order to both be able to identify them, but also think through their performance, their growth, and their ability to deliver?”.
Sam started his answer by noting that there are different ways to look at this. “For some of the indicators such as leadership, collaboration, and trust levels, there are some great resources available, for example team health checks, and a whole range of other tools that create great conversations within the team, to understand where people are at, and to self-improve”. He then mentioned metrics that come through in the work and in the data. “Some of those measure cycle times, which are an interesting metric. There are many definitions of what a cycle time is, and agreeing what this is for your team is quite a valuable exercise. It can be determined by time tickets, progress, or feedback from a customer of something you shipped”. He then elaborated, “getting into the nitty-gritty of some of these metrics is a good way to measure the frequency of change. How quickly can we move as a team? Do we streamline as much as we can, have we automated things? If we're a tech team, these types of metrics can be super helpful”.
Sam concluded, “What would I need to do to recommend this team to a friend? What would I personally change? I think simplifying some of these metrics is really important, but so is having some stability. You can look at these things over time, as that is very valuable for teams”.
A word of caution: team data!
Marilyn asked Sam about how data can be perceived by the team and its leader.
Sam explained, “It is at the core of high-performing team to want to improve, it’s in their nature to ask these questions of themselves. Some of these questions can be, do you have a product owner? Is there someone in the team that is leading and providing direction to the team? It's amazing how many times that is not clear. It's really the first step for a team to step out, or maybe the team's got to two people that think that they're leading the team when they need to actually clarify that and work that through”.
He continued, “these team level metrics need to be carefully thought of, operationalized, and discussed, because if they are mentioned in the wrong way, it can result in some really poor behavior, and people gaming the system. We've seen instances where some of these metrics have become KPIs for leaders, and all of a sudden you've got things happening that are to gain the metrics”.
Agreeing with Sam, Marilyn said “Turning metrics that don’t measure real value creation into KPIs is not a good idea, because it's good to have a great team, but in the end if this great team isn't accomplishing the goal, then maybe it is not as great the data points say”. She then shared an anecdote about how she would obsess over a grade a team health application we use at Cosmic Centaurs called Officevibe would give her. Marilyn concluded, “it's not about the grades, right? I approached it in a healthier way, by having a retrospective with the team, to talk about the things that we feel are taking this grade up and the things that are taking it down, but we're not going to obsess about the number.”
Data about the different stages of a team
Marilyn moved on to another question - one about data points on the different stages of a team, those of the forming, storming, norming, performing, and even the death of teams.
Sam replied that it takes time for a team to form and norm and start delivering value. He said, “I think it is a really important thing for teams to have that sense of achievement, have we shipped something or not?”, and knowing that from the first day in the team, because you can break some really big problems down, and ship in the first week or two of a team. For some teams, it could take a year before value's delivered. Thinking retrospectively, having led large teams of teams in the past, one of the things that I have reflected on is: if we were measuring from day one, we needed to ask ourselves, what value have we delivered? What is our cycle time from very early in the cycle of a team being established, could we have actually brought forward results?”
Answering a question from the audience about team metrics being used across industries, Sam pointed out that there are different metrics for different types of teams. Some of the software metrics have been more measurable and for cross-functional teams, which are a part of all departments nowadays, there's a strong sense of genesis in that area.
The role of leadership in team performance
“How do you think that leaders can create the right conditions for teams to perform? I know we talked about funding models earlier, but are there any other things that leaders need to make available for teams so that they can do their best work?”, Marilyn asked Sam.
He observed that one of the things that have been seen with the shift to remote work is that we are all using a lot more asynchronous communication. He highlighted the importance of being curious about the other parts of the organizations, to interact with them, and to look up and out.
Sam then elaborated on that through the role of leadership, “As a leader, you should be able to look up and out more actively. Your primary role is looking after the team, keeping the team focused on the outcome, and removing blockers, but also being able to look up and out and across the organization.” For him, curiosity in making networks and making connections is a really important aspect of leadership - especially in a remote setting, where there's a great risk that organizations suffer from a lack of innovation, because there are no water cooler or elevator discussions.
To summarize on the key aspect of leadership, Sam said, “As the team lead, you want to remove every possible blocker that the team has, and do that as quickly and effectively as possible, to keep them focused on delivering value”.
He continued, “Often, especially in larger organizations, there are periods of uncertainty, ‘Are we going to get this funding? Are we going to move to that priority?’, and so working with the team, inspiring the team, managing backup, and helping the organization work out what's next for this team that's built this practice and camaraderie together and can deliver value. I think there's a real responsibility for leaders to manage, and to manage through that”
This resonated with Marilyn, who added, “You end up as a leader having to create that space for your own team. I think that's really great advice. You take on all of the external noise and vibes and waves that are coming, and you create a space with more certainty and more stability, and you let your team do their best work”.
The one thing every team needs is…”a goal”
The one thing a team needs to avoid…”waiting”
A good team leader is…”someone who unblocks”
The best book on teams is…”Team Topologies” by Mathew Skelton and Manuel Pais
What’s your favorite team ritual?...”We've done this since the beginning of the pandemic: at every standup meeting, the scrum master of the week asks the question of the day, and each member takes 10 seconds to answer.”