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How to Enable Team Learning and Boost Performance

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Key Takeaways

  • Performance is a behavior
  • If you want to change team performance, adjust the team habits.
  • To enable the best decision-making each moment, a team member should clearly understand team roles, game rules, goals, and strategy and learn from the failures.
  • Be patient, do not expect immediate changes in your team.
  • To implement a new habit, conduct small, timeframe experiments with precise expected results and success metrics. That will help your team.

In a business environment, people often talk about performance, especially in the context of teams.

We talk about boosting team performance, fixing performance issues. We set goals for tracking performance etc.

But in reality, how often do we think about what performance means? Is that the numbers that we collect, the metrics?

What kind of magic happens in high-performing teams? How in the end improve team performance?

An excellent example of a high-performing team could be a football team. One can think about the performance as scores on the scoreboard when the match is over. 3-0 you won!

And this is what we often do in business when evaluating team performance: dashboards, metrics, and numbers. We care too much about them. And we make our teams very focused on improving those numbers.

Imagine a football player running across the field, and instead of hitting the ball or taking the correct position, he looks at the numbers on the scoreboard.

Would he be successful? Would he be able to change the game? You know the answer. So as leaders, we should move our attention from a scoreboard to the field if we want to tune the team performance.

The performance is not the result on the scoreboard. It is something that you do in a certain way at a particular moment.

Performance is a behavior. Performance is a decision that you make every moment, like hitting the ball at the right moment or making a good pass to your team member who can hit the ball. But wait a minute. Could you hit the ball at the right moment if you don't know the game rules? Could you make a good pass if you don't know who is doing what in your team? Could you make the best decision if you don't see what you are trying to achieve?

To make team actions meaningful, to enable the best decision making each moment (means being high performing), a team member should have a clear understanding of:

  • Team Roles
  • Game rules 
  • Strategy 
  • How to learn from the failures 

Now let's look deeper into each aspect to see what you can do as a leader to tune the team performance.

Team Roles

Make sure your team members have a clear understanding of who is doing what. 

  • Do your team members understand each other's roles?

Indeed, you are now thinking - yes, of course, it's not the first day they work together. I advise you not to succumb to this thought and conduct a survey or personally talk with team members to clarify this question. Chat with them, ask questions. I'm sure this conversation alone will reveal a lot to you.

It would help if you had a formal description of all the roles, and each team member should know who is doing what. It helps to reduce the level of uncertainty and take it into account when planning and distributing tasks. However, clear roles do not mean that employees do not do something beyond their role description. Not at all. It will just help them to associate what they do to your expectation as a leader and provide insight into extra effort on the extra mile they are ready to go for you and the team.

A formal description of roles is not enough. In high  performing teams people step out of their own role to support others to reach the project goals.  As a leader, you should create a safe environment where people also can learn about the strengths and weaknesses of each other. You can collaboratively draw a skills matrix or do knowledge sharing; these practices usually are helping to build the understanding of strengths and weaknesses. As an example, we can take a team where you have a disbalance between development and testing effort - when needed the developers can and do pick up some of the testing load to ensure the work is truly completed rather than focusing on being busy developing. 

Game rules

Teach and help your team members to understand the game rules.

  • Do you have defined team working agreements? 
  • When was the last time you revisited them with the team? 
  • Are you investing time to teach your team how to do certain things? 

Maybe you are applying a particular framework like Scrum or Kanban. Are you sure all your team members have the same understanding of this framework? Do they understand what type of behavior is expected from each of them? 

But again, it's not only about having consistent game rules.

It's also about having 1-1 mapping between the expectation and reality.

No team needs abstract rules that have nothing to do with reality. It is necessary together with the team to periodically clarify and bring the desired behavior closer to the actual one. Clear and consistent rules help to  form new habits for your team members and apply new practices and approaches. 

Strategy and goals 

Clearly define and communicate goals and strategy.

  • How often do you talk with your team about the goals and key results?
  • Are the goals clear to each team member?
  • Do they understand what you are trying to achieve as a leader?

Very often, a team with a performance problem lacks the knowledge of strategy. They do not feel like doing meaningful work. As a leader, you should have defined a framework within which you regularly communicate goals and connect them with strategy. You also need to be open to collect feedback from your team if they feel the goals are achievable or not.

It might be that you have clear goals, but you communicate them once per year. Unfortunately, that might be too rare. Based on your context, you need to define the best cadence to remind the team and yourself about the goals. For teams that are working  in compex fast changing environment you need to review the goals at least once per 3 months, maybe even more often. For example, you can schedule release planning or delivery planning sessions with your team. 

Once per 3 months, review with your team the delivery roadmap, release plans. Compare it with your team's current velocity and capacity. Discuss the expectations, collect feedback from your team. Afterwards use sprint review sessions and sprint planning sessions  to track the progress towards the goal. It could be just a nice looking release burndown chart and feature roadmap progress bar. Having such a level of transparency on goals, helps the team to stay focused and understand why they do what they do. It’s quite easy to organize and could be applicable even if you work with one team. If you work with several teams contributing to one product you might need a more complex goal management framework in addition to Scrum. In my experience it worked quite well, I’ve been managing delivery for 6+ teams using Scrum and in addition established goals management framework called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). OKRs helped to manage better stakeholder expectations, and communicate with the team goals that are aligned with the marketing, sales and development department. When you establish such a level of alignment between different groups interested in a project, you also reduce the probability of changes that pop up suddenly, it will help to decrease the level of stress and increase team performance. 

The team should know how to learn from the failures.

Create an environment where it is safe to fall. Teach your team to learn faster and better.

If you want to change the team performance, you should change the team behavior=habit. 

But that’s not enough, you also need to have an understanding about what to change. Sometimes people use the magic combination of words “It's their fault” to find at least someone responsible for a problem. Even a nice-looking, well established scrum team can face such issues. Balming of course is a quick fix, it is not solving problems in the longer term. When this blame game starts,  on one hand managers start punishing those who bring bad news, and to protect themselves, employees start to hide the real problems. And when the mistakes are hidden and not accepted, there won’t be a space for learning. Without having a clear picture of reality, it is quite hard to establish a change that is needed for improvement. So that’s your responsibility as a leader to create a safe environment to fail, as it’s directly connected to the results of your project and the success of your team. Basically, it’s about behavioral (habit) shift - you need to start reacting in a new way in failure.  

Let's talk a bit more about habit, how to form it, and the mechanics of change. 

A habit is formed in our brain when we regularly repeat an action, feeling, or thought. But what to do if a particular way of thinking or acting starts preventing us from getting better results?

The good news is that the mechanics of changing team habits are the same as changing personal habits. But the bad news is — it's just as tricky. Think about what happened with your last New Year's resolution.

Russian famous scientist Ivan Pavlov formed the concept of dynamic stereotypes. Its essence is that our behavior is a set of dynamic stereotypes played by our brain depending on the situation. In one situation, there are some neural complexes in another - others. For example, in a bar with a friend, at home with parents or a coffee spot in the office with a colleague, you behave differently. For each of these cases, you formed a dynamic stereotype, which starts playing by the brain depending on the situation.

Pavlov's theory has received experimental confirmation in the studies of another Nobel laureate, the outstanding neurobiologist Eric Kandel. He showed how these neural networks formed. It turns out that when some actions are repeated, the neurons involved in the process begin to grow additional spines on their processes with their help; some cells «talk to others.»

So this means a habit (yours or your team) is a physical connection in your brain or the brains of people working together.

To get rid of a particular habit, we have to learn constantly to teach the brain to act in a new way.

Think about learning not what happens in a classroom but the experience we gain from what we do.

Let's first define what is lacking in learning. Imagine a person who works 30 years in one job and does it all the time. A person has 30 years of experience, but if we look deeper, we would see that it is one year of experience repeated 30 times. No learning. There is no learning when you repeat your actions without considering the information that comes from outside.

Another type of learning is simple learning or «single-loop learning.» 80% of learning that we experience is simple learning. It is everything - starting from sports, mechanical action, skill development based on trial and error. So it is when we do something and change our actions based on the result.

What is more interesting is so-called «double-loop learning». Double-loop learning happens when you try to see the situation from the other side. Double-loop learning is about mastering new strategies of new types of actions and experiences that previously seemed impossible. For example, when you learn to question your initial assumptions, the ability to see the situation in a new way. So if you train your team in double-loop learning, they will learn faster and better.

But there is one more thing you need to keep in mind.

Our brain is a massive aggregate in which a large number of different processes take place in parallel. The brain needs to solve many problems simultaneously - starting with the fact that it is necessary to «draw» everything that we hear, see, and ending with what we think, feel, perceive. And this does not take into account the regulation of muscle tone, the work of internal organs for which ancient evolutionary parts in the brain are responsible.

With so many different processes that co-occur, we need to act in concert, plus we cannot do several things at once, although we have a lot of desire and external influences. Our brain must consider a large set of factors and create a kind of resulting vector based on them. So the brain prioritizes tasks. 

Let's come back to our New Year's Resolution example. Imagine you try to change a behavior you created for years, starting from childhood. And you resolved that starting from this year, you won't eat sweets, you decided to reduce sugar consumption. But what happens when you see a nice-looking piece of cake? You eat it. And your brain immediately explains to you: one time won't harm. It is the principle of dominance. One nerve center takes over in the fight against other neural networks and receives their tension. So you formed the neural network for years, and you expect just one nice-looking thought to change it. It's not working like that.

Though, it is pointless to fight «bad habits» on the forehead.

It would help if you had something more, something systemic. To get rid of a «bad habit» you need to learn how to form a dominant in yourself or the team.

For instance, you start investigating how so much sugar harms organisms or next time you want to eat cake, you eat fruit instead. So you, step by step, form a new dominant in your brain. Knowing these ingredients, we can neutralize the elements that are developing our habits. And as soon as we neutralize them, we deprive one neural network of power; we will switch this power to create another dominant. We will receive energy to form a new neural network, which will become our new dynamic stereotype.

The exact mechanics work with the team. As a leader, we should understand that forming a new behavior in a group will take several cycles.

And we can succeed if we can create special conditions within your team to avoid repeating the old behaviors. If you have applied at least once a team change, you should have noticed how defensive people become.

One way to create a safe environment for failure and learning is to conduct small, time-framed experiences with precise expected results and success metrics. Communicate that with the team, agree on a new way of doing things and start your experiment. Make sure that during the investigation, all team members follow an agreed way of doing things. When the time is over, collect necessary metrics and discuss them with the team. If the team sees improved results, they will continue applying the new approach, even without your arguments. But if agreed changes are not working, then why keep doing them? Throw away and start a new one. :) 

To summarize 

  • Performance is a behavior
  • If you want to change team performance, adjust the team habits.
  • To enable the best decision-making each moment, a team member should clearly understand Team Roles, Game rules, goals, and strategy and be capable of learning from the failures.
  • Be patient, do not expect immediate changes in your team.
  • To implement a new habit, conduct small, timeframe experiments with precise expected results and success metrics. That will help your team to evaluate and improve faster. 

Further reading, references 

About the Author

Liana Martirosyan is project manager, workshop facilitator, speaker and coach. She helps individuals, teams and organizations to become high performing, managing multicultural, distributed teams in complex rapidly changing environment. She has a special ability in combining a focus on results with attention to individual growth and team development. Her main focus is helping individuals and teams to become result oriented and be able to lean faster and better.

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