Are your teams getting the job done? How hard is it to get your ‘thing’ out the door ? Whether it’s delivering code, a service, or new products to market – high performing teams share some common traits. Here are four habits worth building if you want to make a step change of your delivery performance.
Unfortunately, in large organisations, it’s rare to encounter a team that has such mastery of their own journey: delivering outcomes smoothly, and arriving at the intended destination ‘intact’ and on time.
There are those rare, exceptional teams that teach us how it’s done. And from our experience, they share some common behaviours.
Delivery is about getting your thing out, regardless of whether your ‘thing’ is code or documentation or bringing new products to market. High performing teams are (generally speaking) those that can:
- Really focused on what they want to create, and
- Understand how to optimise their processes for what they want to create.
How do you build these characteristics into your teams? There are four habits that, if practised regularly, will not only create the right delivery culture, but also create a sustainable habitat for that delivery culture to thrive.
Habit 1: Keep your eye on the prize
Corporate culture often teaches us how to focus on things to avoid. When we are fixated on hazards, the team chooses ways of working that minimise damage – which curtails their ability to see or select options that generate other, better outcomes.
Success requires a shift in focus: from what you want to avoid, to where you want to go.
High performing delivery teams – the drivers that can navigate the curve successfully – know what their exit is. They are clear on what aspect of their performance they want to focus on, for example, being predictable, being faster or being more efficient. This is what they are targeting, their exit if you will. And based on this specific target (or performance outcome), they make conscious choices based on what will improve and optimise just this (and ignore what does not contribute).
Yes, there may be hazards along the way, but their focus is firmly on that ‘exit’. HIgh performing teams focus on what they want to create, not on what they want to avoid.
Building the habit
- Ask yourself: What is your current focus? Are hazards distracting the delivery team from achieving their goals?
- Name and align around the prize ! Start with a list of what ‘failure’ looks like and then list the opposite. You want to focus on the positive, so get some bullet points down that describe what your ‘exit’ looks like and keep an eye out for “don’t” and ‘not’.
Habit 2: Own your ways of working
High performing delivery cultures are driven by teams that are empowered to make choices, within a psychologically safe environment of. When people feel safe and supported to make choices, they will not only own their way of working and become actively engaged, their performance and satisfaction will increase (often exponentially).
When people have ownership, they automatically find ways to do their job better, with more ease. They naturally seek and select better ways of working to create this.
The key is building in choice for people and teams around specific performance outcomes.
This is the difference between struggling to get team members to attend a daily stand up and team members insisting on the stand up, because they chose it as one of their key levers to improve their performance.
Building the habit:
- Ask yourself: Do you trust your teams to make the right choices on how they work?
- Deliberately build in choice (and accountability)for teams by providing a clear performance goal and a set of practices and processes to choose from
- Deliberately build in psychological safety by creating (and applying) social contracts to ensure that team members play well together.
- Deliberately talk about what trust and safety looks like for both leaders and teams and actively build this into what and how you do things.
Habit 3: Continuous improvement – one thing at a time
High performing teams understand that they are working in complex systems, in which things are interconnected. These teams know that they need continuous improvement, and this is best done by optimising one aspect of their performance at a time.
It’s like the well-known Mona Lisa metaphor. Would Da Vinci also have been able to create his masterpiece by taking an incremental and iterative approach, getting customer feedback along the way?
Within the corporate context, high performance delivery is largely about ensuring that the most value for the customer is generated in the most cost-effective manner within an often limited capacity.
This translates into four common outcomes that drive performance optimisation. Namely delivering:
- more customer value,
- more efficiently (cost),
- more frequently (speed)
- with more predictably (stability)
Teams often have different language to describe these, such as ‘deliver with more ease’ or ‘remove surprises’. The point is to collectively, as a team, select the one thing you want to change and focus on that.
This enables teams to prioritise, master that and then build from there (there is always another thing to optimise).
Whether or not you re-word the optimising outcome, accomplishing any of these requires a different combination of practices and principles, agile or otherwise.
It isn’t important which one of these you pick, so long as you pick one. What you can’t do is try and optimise for all of them simultaneously – that dilutes effort and creates shallow, often ineffective, ways of working. For new high performing teams, their focus could be on learning what it takes to become more predictable in their delivery.
Building the habit:
- Select one aspect of performance that, if optimised, will have the biggest uplift and is the easiest to achieve.
- Take an iterative approach, create feedback loops so you can continually improve
Hint: a good starting point is to focus on getting delivery stabilised first. It is hard to improve when things are chaotic.
Habit 4: Choose the practices that matter to you
One of the unintended consequences of bringing in new ways of working is that there are a lot to choose from and all are beneficial. It depends on the circumstances and finding the ‘right’ starting point can be hard.
High-performing teams build up their ways of working by focusing on doing only what will achieve their performance optimising outcome (and postponing the rest).
For example, if a delivery team chooses to optimise for predictability, then they have chosen to finish what they start, with fewer surprises. The agile practices and principles that they select will revolve around planning, stand-ups, managing blockers and dependencies, shaping and sizing work, and limiting work in progress.
Because their goal is to finish what they start – consistently and predictably – they consciously place less importance on having a high quality backlog. The accepted consequence here is that they may be delivering lower customer-value work. However, by focusing on predictability, what they create is the ability to deliver whatever they are given.
This means that once the quality of the backlog improves, they are able to get this value to the customer.
Another team may choose to optimise for customer value, so they adopt a way of working that ensures that their capacity is always delivering the highest value work. To do that, they would select agile practice and principles around priorisation, planning focused on value, visualising and defining value, and shaping work into the smallest piece of value that can be delivered.
Building the habit:
- Ask yourself: What is the most important performance outcome for the team to focus on?
- Chart how aligned the teams’ current ways of working are to that outcome. Highlight anything they need to stop, start or strengthen.
Habits are, by their very nature, repeated actions. And the hope is that by implementing these actions into your practices, they will eventually stick.
After all, the end game should be to create a sustainable culture, one that allows high performing delivery teams to continuously thrive.