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Building High-Performance Teams

By Lorrina Eastman, Alison Mallard
Published on Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fun. Inspiring. Fulfilling. Energizing. Empowering. Liberating.  Electric!  SPN 20th Annual Meeting attendees used these words to describe what it is like to be a part of a high-performing team. People recognize that being part of a strong team is a powerful, rewarding experience. Research also shows that effective teams create returns for the organization, including enhanced employee satisfaction and retention, increased productivity and more entrepreneurial thinking. 

For the free market movement, which promotes ideas with lean organizations, building high-performing teams will help leverage scarce resources and maximize effectiveness to advance your mission. This applies to your group whether it has several departments or a two-person staff.

Creating a cohesive and productive team requires work, commitment and determination. Having a common framework or model for defining success is a good place to start. The team effectiveness framework (Figure 1) provides a holistic view and offers insight into what is going well and where there are gaps. Three things must be present for a group to thrive: purpose, mechanics and relationships.  

Purpose is the “why” or raison d’etre of the team. Members are united by a common, compelling purpose and can readily answer questions such as, “Why are we here?” and “What is our charter?” As purveyors in ideas, it is especially important that think-tank staff have a clear, concrete purpose. 

Second, there needs to be a solid infrastructure or mechanics in place.  Ideally, the right people with the right skills are aligned to the right roles (structure) and there are resources needed to deliver against the group’s vision. Once the right structure and resources are in place, there needs to be clarity about who is accountable for what and how decisions are made. Disciplined management processes and routines are also important because they facilitate integration, collaboration and communication.   

Finally, the third and often overlooked component is relationships. This area is often left to chance, but a team cannot achieve its full potential without them. Trust, camaraderie, collaboration and communication are defining features of a successful team. When relationships work well, group members communicate openly, constructively and candidly; they share information freely; they learn from one another.   

Differences of opinion lead to breakthrough thinking, rather than unproductive conflict. There is a sense of being “in it together” and individuals know they can trust one another to support the group’s broader efforts. Those who have experienced this know how essential and rewarding these relationships are. Conversely, those who have experienced a void in this area well understand the words of Babe Ruth, who said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime.”

Ask yourself: Does our free market organization house individual policy talent, or media talent, or tech talent, but lack clarity of vision, cohesion or infrastructure to maximize this talent?  If yes, it’s that much harder to make a difference, valuable talent can be squandered and, over time, this demoralizes a team.

In summary, purpose, mechanics and relationships are the three pillars of a winning team. These pillars take time to build so it is critical to treat team development as an ongoing process versus a one-time event. The development process is presented in Figure 2 and involves the following steps. 

Assess the team to determine what it is doing well and where it could improve. There are several ways to do this depending upon resources and which approach works best for the organization. What matters is that the group takes the time to evaluate and discuss how effectively it is operating in all key areas. In addition, inviting feedback from important stakeholders can provide an objective and valuable read on performance.

Some teams also choose to supplement an effectiveness assessment with personality instruments such as the Birkman or MBTI, which can help individual members better understand one another, how to best work together and how to capitalize upon their different strengths. The Team Effectiveness Evaluation (in box at right) includes statements team members can rate and discuss.  

Prioritize. Once there is agreement about what needs to improve, members should agree upon the one or two key areas of focus.  A common mistake: Trying to do too much and diluting the effort.  It’s similar to taking on too many policy battles, instead of focusing on the few relevant fights that could be game-changers, or chasing donor dollars instead of prioritizing based on what’s best for your state. Identify the two to three things that will have the biggest impact on your team’s productivity and, ultimately, your ability to improve your state.

Action Planning. The group should collectively generate specific actions that will help improve the areas identified as priorities. Avoid vague action plans (e.g., “We will improve communications among the team”). Instead, focus on Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound (SMART) commitments against which progress can be evaluated. As noted below, establishing ways to ensure accountability is essential.

Follow through. This may be the most critical part because it’s the area that often fails. It simply requires that the team follows through on the commitments it makes. Follow-through frequently falls to the wayside because it can be difficult, it requires time and energy, and – to state the obvious – resources, and there are many competing organizational priorities.  Waning commitment to the team development process can also interfere with progress if quick wins are not achieved and celebrated. 

Feedback. How does a team know if its efforts have actually made a difference? Gathering feedback is a great way to gauge progress. The feedback can help the team celebrate successes and also feeds the continuous development loop by identifying where the group can continue to grow and improve. 

In early 2012, the SPN Development Team embarked upon its own development journey.  Following the above process, members completed an assessment through stakeholder feedback and the Birkman Assessment. The results helped them better understand group dynamics and how to best work together. They identified and implemented clear plans for improvement. Approximately six months after initiating the process, they sought feedback from the original stakeholders, and the feedback overwhelmingly confirmed that they had, indeed, made noticeable progress.  Team members also believe they are more productive – and the numbers support this!  

Building a high-performing team is hard work.  But as the SPN Development Team can tell you, the effort yields impressive returns. 

Lorrina Eastman, Ph.D., is vice president, and Alison Mallard, Ph.D., president, of HRCatalyst, Inc. Write them at and, respectively.


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State Policy Network is made up of free market think tanks - at least one in every state - fighting to limit government and advance market-friendly public policy at the state and local levels. SPN and our members make the Founders' vision for the American Republic a reality as the nation's only 50-state distribution network for market-oriented public policy ideas. Our programs advance and defend American liberty and free enterprise by assisting new start-up organizations, growing existing state think tanks, recruiting talent to the think tank industry, developing strategic partnerships, and promoting the free-market state movement. Read More

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