Building high-performance teams

The Most Important Characteristics Of High-Performance Teams (2021)

Why do some teams perform better than others? What sets these teams apart from the rest? How can you build outstanding teams?

I’ve been building and leading high-performing teams for nearly 15 years in various roles. I’ve seen groups forming, norming, succeeding, and failing, too – this article is the distillation of what I’ve learned along the way.

Let’s dive right in! It will be a long one, but you can use the table of contents below to jump to sections you are especially interested in.

The Definition Of A High Performing Team

A high-performance team is a cross-functional group of people with complementary skills. They are aligned with and committed to shared values and vision and work towards a common objective.

There is deep trust and mutual respect among the team members.

This highly effective team is innovative in problem-solving and displays a high level of communication and collaboration, delivering consistent and superior results.

High-performing teams meet their goals consistently, work cohesively as a group, and are engaged in their work.

Sounds like a dream, right? Read on to find out what you need to build such teams and for a breakdown of the above traits, plus a few applicable mental models.

In the following sections, I give you a detailed breakdown of what leads to high performance in teams and explain the results of well-established research that can help you understand how to build and coach such groups.

Characteristics of High-Performance Teams

The following vital attributes separate a high-performing team from any other. When it comes to building great teams, researchers have long concluded that three psychological factors are essential: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Decades of research demonstrate the importance of these psychological needs – that when people feel fulfilled, they tend to be happier, healthier, and more productive.

Trust And Mutual Respect

Members of high-performance teams are aware of and recognize each other’s expertise, working methods, and achievements.

This, combined with trust, creates a strong bond among the team members and increases productivity. The team faces challenges as a cohesive whole, and their collective will to deliver the best results is driven by shared values and a motivating sense of integrity.

With a certain baseline level of trust, teams can collaborate, innovate, and work as a cohesive unit; without trust, employees will struggle to share their thoughts, opinions, and ideas and may have a hard time collaborating with coworkers — all of which can hinder performance. That’s why trust is one of the essential characteristics of a high-performing team.

💡 Tip: Kindness and active listening both tremendously help build trust. Read the linked articles to learn how.

Effective Work Practices

Ranging from day-to-day agile to how pull request reviews are conducted, effective work practices are crucial to building high-performing teams.

Ineffective, lacking, or over-done processes, tools, and work rules will hinder any team and cause problems in many areas of teamwork – planning, execution, and learning.

The right kind and amount of supporting processes and rules of engagement, on the other hand, can boost a team’s performance. Good software platforms, internal tooling, clear responsibilities, approvals are a few examples.

💡 Tip: An experimental mindset is one of the good work practices – it helps the team reduce risk, explore options without investing a lot upfront, and boosts learning, too.

💡 Tip: Tackling technical debt is usually one of the toughest challenges a software development team faces – read this article for actionable advice on how to approach tech debt and how to prioritize it.

Shared Vision And A Clear Direction

High-performing team members share the same values and vision. They work together as a motivated team towards this vision and common objective while being focused on delivering the best business results and solutions.

Open And Clear Communication

Empowered by trust and mutual respect, the team members have positive and candid conversations with each other and their stakeholders. There are always open communication channels, and the team doesn’t feel they need to hold back.

Feedback, sharing ideas, and sharing knowledge – essential in all high-performance teams – are all based on solid communication skills.

💡 Tip: Read my article on communication to learn more about the topic.

💡  research suggests that discussing non-work topics are essential for building trust. One of the reasons is that it’s in personal conversations that we identify shared interests, which fosters more profound bonding and authentic connections. Being recognized on the human level is also a basic psychological need. As a leader, make sure to give space to such discussions. Look beyond traditional “team-building” and enable your team to connect on a personal level at work.

Team-First Mentality

When team members have an “every person for themselves” mentality, they may perform well as individuals — but they will struggle to find success as a team. A team’s combined impact is much higher than just the sum of the individuals’ impact – skills and experience complement each other and ideas get better when there’s a discussion about them. Acting as a team is a real multiplier.

High-performing teams relish collaboration, coordination, and creativity. They see the result of their work as being a group effort — one that is better than could possibly come from any single person.

Diversity

When you’re growing your team, you might be tempted to only look for people who fit into your idea of what “high-performing” means. You might think you need to staff your team with only a specific background or skillset. The truth is, to build a team that performs at the highest level, diversity is vital.

A high-performing team isn’t made up of well-rounded individuals. A high-performing team becomes well-rounded by integrating different strengths, perspectives, and experiences.

💡 Simply put, diversity is how we ensure the best ideas rule the day. People from diverse backgrounds might actually alter the behavior of a group’s social majority in ways that lead to improved and more accurate group thinking.

Hiring different types of people allows you to leverage each of their unique strengths, perspectives, and experiences to build the most robust and adaptable team possible.

Continuous Learning

Even the best teams and individuals have room to grow. High-performing teams value feedback, learn from their mistakes, and are eager to better themselves. They look for opportunities to grow by nurturing a feedback culture and investing in ongoing employee development.

Continuous learning not only propels growth and keeps teams striving for higher achievement but is an excellent motivator for software engineers.

Traits-of-high-performance-teams
Traits of high-performance teams

Building A High-Performing Team

Now we understand the critical traits of high-performance teams. Let’s see what leaders can do to foster such groups.

💡 Tip: My earlier post - The 10 Golden Rules of Team Leadership - gives you a quick & dirty intro to what practices work for coaching teams as a leader.

Create A Shared Sense Of Purpose

In order for employees to feel personally connected to a team, they need a common purpose. This is where clear goals and team alignment come into play.

Leaders of high-performing teams should continuously be evaluating priorities and team goals to ensure they are meaningful, impactful, and aligned. Keep organizational goals on the top of the team’s mind by regularly communicating and connecting those goals to their work.

In modern high-performance organizations, goal setting is a team sport, too. Top-down goals and directions are outdated and have proven to decrease engagement. Define a wide enough problem space for your team and then rally them to come up with solution ideas. Prefer asking questions to giving directions.

Take advantage of one-on-one sessions to check in with team members on their key priorities, interests, ideas and ensure their work aligns with the overall team goals. This helps create a shared sense of purpose and ensures the team is pulling together in the same direction.

Regularly engage the team to zoom out of the current work at hand and reiterate higher-level goals and purpose.

Streamline Communication

High-performing teams are nimble and focused — which requires clear, timely, and streamlined communication. As a leader, help keep everyone on the same page by establishing transparent processes, channels, and norms for communication.

As an example, when it comes to channels, teams might use Slack channels for general chats and team updates, rely on Jira for project management, and use Confluence for documentation.

Make sure the team together defines processes, roles, and responsibilities about communication – responsibilities. Do you have daily standups? Do you do project kickoffs? Who leads retrospectives?

Having set communication processes helps prevent conflict, enables alignment, and ensures vital information is shared with the right people in a timely fashion, and nothing important falls through the cracks.

Streamlining has another essential side: while it’s tempting to flood all channels with tons of information, that’s actually counterproductive. Information overload and notification fatigue are real issues, and you as a leader need to make sure team members have control over the influx of information.

Invest In Development

If you want to build a high-performance team, create a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Such units are curious. They ask questions, experiment, and adapt based on what they learn. As the world and the market change around them, they step up to the new challenges.

Drive team performance by investing in your employees’ growth and development. Identify relevant development opportunities that are at the intersection of team needs and individual goals.

Learning is also very relevant on the team level. Help the team reflect on their processes, skill distribution. Incorporate feedback on the solutions they deliver. Experiment with process changes to level up the team’s performance and to remove roadblocks.

💡 Check this article for some goal setting advice: The 101 of effective goal setting

💡 Don’t forget: learning is a part of the job. It’s not something extra people should do after working hours or on the weekend. It’s your job, as the leader, to make sure there’s space for this.

Create Space For Healthy Conflict

Many leaders think that high-performing teams are free of conflict and that they immediately need to intervene if they sense any kind of conflict. The truth is that team members need to feel safe to openly share ideas, disagree, and challenge each other.

As a manager, you need to create a space where your team members feel comfortable hashing things out. You set the tone by reinforcing that everyone on the team has value and a voice. You can help bring ideas forward, tee up the debate, and celebrate healthy behaviors. Any team member should be able to do these — but managers should lead by example.

💡 There’s a vast difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict. You don’t want to let it escalate to the point that it gets personal or hinders your team’s ability to work together. You need to guide your team through these temporary rough patches.

Make feedback a cornerstone of your culture

Giving your team helpful, constructive feedback is crucial, and you also have to be willing to receive feedback from your staff.

Feedback needs to exist within every team as a part of team culture. This only works if there’s respect in every direction, and all input is equally valued. This means that leaders respect the critical feedback they receive as much as their team members appreciate leadership’s feedback.

In order for feedback to be valued, to inspire and nurture high-performing teams, it needs to be:

  • About the work, not the person — it is to help the individual, not to get it off someone’s chest.
  • Given in a timely manner — as the situation allows, but the sooner, the better.
  • Specific — avoid generalization and give examples.

Your role as a leader is to lead by example here, both in giving and accepting quality feedback.

💡 Tip: it’s essential to give positive feedback regularly, too! It might feel easy to do, but to make it worthwhile, it should also adhere to the three rules above.

Set Measurable Goals

It’s not enough to be aligned about the purpose, values, and goals – the team needs to be able to measure both progress and success against those goals.

Good goals are measurable – this is true for individuals and teams alike. The lack of quantifiable goals will leave the team in limbo, unsure about progress, and will also hinder learning and feedback.

💡 As a leader, it’s your duty to coach your team to set measurable goals together. Read more about goal frameworks here.

Six leadership duties
Six leadership duties of high-performance team leaders.

In the following sections I will introduce the main pieces of research and frameworks for understanding team health and performance.


The 5 Stages Of Team Development [ Framework #1]

In 1965, Dr. Bruce Tuckman published the Tuckman model, in which he detailed the five usual stages of how a team develops over time. Once you understand these stages of group development and their traits, you can help your group push past challenges and become a high-performance team.

💡 It’s crucial to understand that these stages don’t always follow a linear timeline. Changes in the team or their environments, such as the arrival of a new team member, a new leader, or shifting focus to new areas, often result in the team going back to earlier stages and starting over their journey.

The 5 stages of team development
Tuckman’s stages of group development

1. Forming Stage

Team members first meet, understand their roles and responsibilities. They are cautious with their behavior as they try gradually get to know their peers and the context.

Team members are asking questions like, “What does the team offer me?” “What is expected of me?” “Will I fit in?” Most interactions are social as members gradually get to know each other.

This is a good time for the leader to start discussions about the team’s purpose and mission, to address the ground rules and team norms.

2. Storming Stage

Tensions rise as people start to speak their minds and solidify their places within the team.

This stage is usually the most difficult and critical one to pass through. It is a period marked by conflict and competition as individual personalities and goals emerge.

Team performance may actually decrease as much energy is put into unproductive but necessary activities. Members disagree on team goals, subgroups and cliques form around strong personalities or areas of agreement which then compete and try to convince others. Individual goals may take precedence over team goals and alignment becomes a constant battle.

To get through this stage, members must work to overcome obstacles, accept individual differences, and work through conflicting ideas on team tasks and goals.

As said earlier, this is the most critical stage, since failure to address conflicts may result in long-term problems which will prove very hard to resolve later. Without an experienced leader, teams might get stuck in the storming stage for long, which can lead to burnout and attrition.

You can help the team get over this stage by encouraging members to focus on team-level goals. Try breaking big goals down into smaller, more manageable, and measurable ones. Lead the team to define roles and responsibilities and coach them in developing group-, and conflict-management skills, such as healthy, objective debates, decision processes, and so on.

3. Norming Stage

Conflicts now start to resolve; team members appreciate each other’s strengths and rules of engagement form.

After getting through the storming stage, most conflicts are resolved, and a degree of unity emerges. Consensus develops around leadership, norms, and rules of engagement. Alignment of goals starts to appear.

Team performance increases during this stage as members learn to work together and begin to focus on team goals.

A leader now should be patient, observe and intervene only when necessary. The team needs to work out the dynamics organically. You can work with individuals to coach them in self-evaluation to see if there is room for improvement, but your primary focus should be on encouraging stability.

Some teams will flip-flop between the storming and norming stages. This is completely normal and usually disappears over time.

4. Performing Stage

The group functions together as a cohesive unit and without too much direction from the team leader.

In the performing stage, consensus and cooperation have been established, and the team is mature, organized, and well-functioning. There is a clear and stable structure, and members are committed to the team’s mission. Norms and working agreements are set and are supporting the group. Problems and conflicts still emerge, but they are dealt with constructively. The team focuses on problem-solving and meeting team goals.

5. Adjourning Stage

The team achieved its original goals, and everyone can move on to new projects, or the team can change its focus.

In the adjourning stage, most of the team’s goals have been accomplished. The focus is on wrapping up final tasks and documenting the effort and results. As the workload diminishes, individual members may be reassigned to other teams, and the team disbands.

There is usually regret as the group ends, so both a formal acknowledgment of the work and success of the group and a more celebrations are due.

Alternatively, in organizations that support longer living teams, the team shifts focus to new domains and problem areas. In this case, the team might go back to a forming or storming stage and repeat the development process.


The 5 Factors Of Team Effectiveness [ Framework #2]

In 2012, Google started a 2-year long research to find out why some teams thrived while others failed. Project Aristotle was conducted, and the lessons learned from this research can be broken down into five qualities, with the first being the most vital.

Using input from executives across the globe, the research team identified 180 teams to study (115 project teams in engineering and 65 pods in sales) which included a mix of high- and low-performing teams. The study tested how both team composition (e.g., personality traits, sales skills, demographics on the team) and team dynamics (e.g., what it was like to work with teammates) impact team effectiveness. Ideas were pulled from existing research as well as Google’s own experience with what makes an effective team.

https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/

The main result of this research is: How teams work together is more important than who is on the team.

The five key dynamics that affect team effectiveness, in order of priority, are:

  • Psychological safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea
  • Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time
  • Structure and clarity: Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals. Goals can be set at the individual or group level and must be specific, challenging, and attainable
  • Meaning: Work is personally important and meaningful to team members. A sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is there
  • Impact: Team members think their work matters and makes a difference
The 5 Key Traits Of Effective Teams
The 5 Key Traits Of Effective Teams
💡The researchers have also provided a list of indicators that show improvement is necessary for each key dynamic. These are signs that your team needs to improve a particular dynamic:
  • Psychological safety: Fear of asking for or giving feedback. Team members are hesitant to express divergent ideas or ask “stupid” questions.
  • Dependability: Team members have poor visibility into project priorities or progress. There’s a diffusion of responsibility and no clear owners for pieces of work. Solution quality is sub-par, delivery is often late.
  • Structure and clarity: Lack of clarity about responsibilities. An unclear decision-making process, owners, or rationale.
  • Meaning: Work is assigned based solely on ability, expertise, and workload. There’s little or no consideration for individual needs and interests. Lack of recognition for achievements or milestones. No connection to higher goals.
  • Impact: Team members feel they are “treading water.” Often too many goals are set, limiting the ability to make meaningful progress.

💡Project Aristotle also provides a simple tool to understand how your team feels about these dynamics. It’s a set of questions you can discuss either in a group or a one-on-one setting which will help your team determine their own needs and commit to making improvements.

The 4 Key Team Performance Metrics [ Framework #3]

The DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) team is a research group that started independently in 2014 and has been part of Google since 2019. They’re known for the annual “State of DevOps” reports – you can find the 2021 one here.

The DORA team has been conducting annual global surveys since 2014 that have collected data from more than 32,000 software professionals to this day. This research has identified four key performance metrics.

💡 The research methodology and results are explained in detail in the book Accelerate. It is a must-read for anyone interested in improving software engineering team productivity.

The four metrics are:

  • Deployment frequency: How often an organization deploys to production.
  • Lead time for change: The time it takes to get committed code to run in production.
  • Change failure rate: The percentage of production deployments leading to degraded service and remediation (e.g., rollback).
  • Time to restore service: How long it takes to fix a failure in production.

The first two metrics – deployment frequency and change lead time – measure the velocity of your software engineering teams.

The second two – mean time to recover and change failure rate – indicate the level of stability. The research shows that high-performing teams demonstrate high velocity while still achieving great stability.

DORA 4 key devops metrics

The four Accelerate metrics are the most popular part of this research. However, it includes many other important insights you should be aware of when applying the metrics. For example, the study lists 24 key capabilities that correlate with team performance. These are actionable advice for leaders who look for ways to improve their teams.

24 Key Capabilities For High-Performance Teams

Continuous Delivery

  • Use version control for all production artifacts
  • Automate your deployment processes
  • Implement continuous integration (CI)
  • Use trunk-based development processes
  • Implement test-automation
  • Support test data management
  • Shift left on security (integrating security into the design and test phase of the software development process)
  • Implement continuous delivery (CD).

Architecture

  • Use a loosely coupled architecture
  • Architect [the application] for empowered teams.

Product And Process

  • Gather and implement customer feedback
  • Make the work visible through value streams
  • Work in small batches
  • Forster and enable team experimentation.

Lean Management And Monitoring

  • Have a lightweight change approval process
  • Monitor across application and infrastructure to inform business decisions
  • Check system health proactively
  • Improve processes and manage work with work-in-progress (WIP) limits
  • Visualize work to monitor quality and communicate throughout the team

Cultural

  • Support a generative culture (as outlined by Westrum)
  • Encourage and support learning
  • Support and facilitate collaboration among teams
  • Provide resources and tools that make work meaningful
  • Support or embody transformational leadership.

A Framework For Developer Productivity (SPACE) [ Framework #4]

A member of the DORA team and author of the book Accelerate, Nicole Forsgren, led another study to give a more complete and nuanced picture of developer productivity beyond the high-level metrics included in DORA.

SPACE is a framework for software engineer productivity. It looks at it from the perspective of multiple organizational levels (individuals, teams & groups, and systems) and dimensions (Satisfaction & Well-being, Performance, Activity, Communication & Collaboration, and Efficiency & Flow).

The SPACE framework aims to avoid the fallacies of earlier attempts to measure developer productivity. These myths and misconceptions about developer productivity include:

  • 🚫 Productivity is all about developer activity.
  • 🚫 Productivity is only about individual performance.
  • 🚫 One productivity metric can tell us everything.
  • 🚫 Productivity measures are useful only for managers.
  • 🚫 Productivity is only about engineering systems and developer tools.

💡 I’ve written about related fallacies in product development.

To avoid these traps, the SPACE framework provides a way to think rationally about productivity in a bigger context. It lists five different dimensions of developer productivity you should measure instead:

  • Satisfaction and well-being: This is about how fulfilled developers feel with their work, team, tools, or culture; how healthy and happy they are and how their work impacts it. Example metrics include employee satisfaction, developer efficacy, and burnout.
  • Performance: Trying to measure performance through outputs is the most popular fallacy. For software development, performance is about outcomes instead of output. Example metrics include reliability, absence of bugs, and customer adoption.
  • Activity: Activities that happen when performing work, such as design documents, commits, and incident mitigation. Developer activity, if measured correctly, can provide valuable but limited insights about developer productivity, engineering systems, and team efficiency. It’salmost impossible to measure comprehensively. Therefore, you should never use them in isolation and instead always balance them with metrics from other dimensions.
  • Communication and collaboration: How well do teams communicate and work together? Software development is a collaborative and creative task that relies on extensive and effective communication, coordination, and collaboration within and between teams. Example metrics include discoverability of documentation, quality of reviews, and onboarding times for new team members.
  • Efficiency and flow: Developers often describe flow as an uninterrupted period of time when they are able to focus on delivering tasks related to project work items. This can include how well activities within and across teams are orchestrated and whether continuous progress is being made. Example metrics include the number of handoffs in a process, perceived ability to stay in flow, and time measures through the system (total time, value-added time, and wait time).

For a full picture of what is happening in your organization – and to avoid the fallacy of focusing only on individuals – the SPACE framework suggests that you have metrics for these dimensions on the following levels of your organization:

  • Individual: The people in the cross-functional team.
  • Team or group: Dynamics, flows and processes in the group.
  • System: End-to-end work through a system, e.g., the development pipeline of your organization from design to production or any processes related to product development.

The SPACE framework authors provide an example table with metrics for each dimension and organization level. It gives you a more practical idea of what metrics you could have in your organization – but only use it for inspiration, don’t blindly copy-paste.

SPACE metrics

There are three things to keep in mind with creating your version of SPACE:

  • Include metrics from at least three dimensions.
  • Include metrics from all levels of the organization.
  • At least one of the metrics should include perceptual measures such as survey data. Perceptions about people’s actual experiences provide more complete and accurate information than simple metrics alone.

It’s likely that having multiple metrics will create metrics in tension, which is by design. It helps form a balanced view and understand that there are always tradeoffs involved. It will also make sure you’re not optimizing a single metric to the detriment of the entire system.


It’s obvious that building and coaching high-performance teams are not trivial matters. There are a lot of – sometimes competing – factors at play, there’s psychology involved and it can feel chaotic from time to time. Leading teams feels more like art sometimes.

That said, the models and frameworks described in this article help in working this muscle and improving ourselves as team leaders, managers, and coaches. Bookmark this article and come back to parts of it in times of need.

💡 I’d love to hear your opinions on this matter and any feedback you have for the article. Feel free to use the comment box below, send me an email at [email protected], or hit me up on Twitter.

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