Building High-Performance Teams

Richard Kasperowski is an expert on high-performance teams, he’s a keynote speaker and the author of The Core Protocols: A Guide to Greatness. He leads clients in building great teams that get great results using the McCarthy Core Protocols, Agile practices and perspectives, as well as Open-Space Technology. Kasperowski spoke with our Agile Amped podcast to explain what high-performing teams are, how to measure team performance, and what is required for a team to become high-performing. This article is based on our conversation with him.

What is a High-Performance Team?

Most people look back at the best team they were ever on in their life, and they think, “That was awesome and I got lucky.” Most of us also don’t know how to do that again on purpose, even though everybody wants that again. But on closer inspection, you may find that you were actually on a high-performance team. How do you know?

Kasperowski defines a high-performance team as “a team that gets objectively better results than other teams doing similar work.” Also, high-performance teams often are recalled long afterward as being remarkable, as delivering good value.

A high-performance team is a team that gets objectively better results than other teams doing similar work.

So the question becomes: how do you measure performance?

Measuring Performance

Performance is something you can observe and measure. Different teams have different objective measurements. For example, you can gauge how much revenue a team brings in, and you can compare that to other teams using that same measurement. On this point, Kasperowski says that, “if you compare [high-performing teams] to all the teams in the universe doing that kind of work, the high-performing teams are the ones that are objectively better than the others.” So in the case of revenue, for all teams being evaluating according to the revenue they bring in, high-performance teams have a better record from an objective standpoint.

It turns out that most businesses, however, don’t always measure some of the squishy stuff that contributes to high performance in teams, both directly and indirectly. Such indicators include many things that Agile organizations value: transparency, problem resolution, collaboration, delivery velocity and predictability. For help evaluating these, Kasperowski turned to the McCarthy Core Protocols.

The Science of High Performance

The McCarthy Core Protocols are a set of practical skills and scripts that help individuals function more effectively with others, both in a team context and more generally. The Core Protocols provide people scripts and poses that allow emotional intelligence and psychological safety to emerge organically. The Core Protocols are the work of Jim and Michelle McCarthy, who together are celebrated as having led one of the best teams ever in the software industry at Microsoft back in the mid 90’s. Says Kasperowski, “They weren’t really sure how it happened, and they wanted to see if they could make it happen again on purpose.”

So the husband-wife team started up their own team research lab where they noticed that higher-performing teams shared some common behavior patterns. They began documenting these behavior patterns and called them protocols, which is a way two humans or two machines interact with each other. Then they started to experiment. In their lab they would teach teams these behavior patterns, and they noticed that these teams were statistically more effective and experienced more successes.

Psychological Safety Key to Trust and Thus High-Performance

Emotional intelligence, sometimes called emotional competence because it’s actually something you can develop, is not something that you’re born with. Emotional competence is demonstrated in your ability to do the following:

  1. Understand your own emotional state and articulate it
  2. Govern my behavior appropriately, regardless of your current emotional state
  3. Infer the emotional state of others
  4. Influence the behavior or emotional state of others based on what I know

While this may seem complicated on the surface, most everyone does this everyday. For example, if you see someone frowning, you may tell them a joke to cheer them up. Whether or not they laugh, you were able to infer that person’s emotional state and, based on your own understanding of influencing emotions, you were able to choose an appropriate joke to evoke the appropriate response (an improvement in that person’s mood).

You can also scale that up to team emotional intelligence. In a paper written by Vanessa Druskat, Steve Wolff, et al. entitled “Team Emotional Intelligence: Linking Team Social And Emotional Environment To Team Effectiveness,” they identified nine independent variables of individual, including psychological safety, team efficacy and proactive problem-solving. “These are things that, in a team that’s emotionally intelligent, people can do,” Kasperowski says. “So when we disagree with each other, we can resolve that dispute efficiently and wisely without destroying the team.” Kasperowski draws inspiration and support from an article by the New York Times called “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” which says that “psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.” Kasperowski explains:

“We’ll say everybody at Google is individually a high performer, so like 80th percentile or better as an individual. If you take a team at Google of 99th percentile individuals, but they have low psych safety, and then compare their performance to a team that’s 80th percentile individuals that have really high psych safety, that team of apparently lower-performing individuals will be a higher-performing team because they have higher psychological safety.”

And further, to harness diversity in the people on a team, you can set up an environment “where people feel safe and where there’s a high level of group emotional intelligence together, and these are skills that people can learn.”

Team EI Protocol Stack

Research into the science of team psychological safety has been underway for decades, but there’s more to team emotional intelligence. As Kasperowski says, “Teams that measure high on team emotional intelligence, also measure high in performance.” He has gone so far as to identify a “protocol stack” that he believes has enabled the emergence of team high-performance.

Teams that measure high on team emotional intelligence, also measure high in performance.

1. Positive Bias

This is the base layer of the Team EI Protocol Stack. This means that among team members there’s a bias toward positive outcomes, that they exhibit positive intent together. “One of my clients talks about this using the phrase, ‘Unconditional positive regard for each other.’ So we always assume that our teammates are doing the right thing so the team gets the right results.”

2. Autonomy

The next layer in the protocol stack is autonomy. “Everything on high-performance teams is about opting in. Nobody is coerced, nobody is forced to doing anything, everything that you want to do, even being on that team, is a choice for the individuals on that team. When you observe high-performing teams, people want to be on those teams, they choose to be on those teams. They choose the tasks, they want to do the work, nobody coerces them into doing the work…

“Google is a good example of this. Most of the teams at Google spin up autonomously. Some engineer has a good idea, they share it with somebody else, they join together, they start working on this good idea together… It happens voluntarily. There are a lot of things at Google that happen because somebody had a good idea, and other people opted in to collaborate on that good idea together.”

3. Self-Awareness and Psychological Safety

The third layer in the Kasperowski’s stack is self-awareness. So teams use the McCarthy protocols like check in and asking for help. “Did you know in high-performing teams, people ask for help for things they don’t know to do or things they actually want help with? This gets into the idea of psychological safety. When people feel safe, it’s okay to admit that you don’t know something, or okay to admit that you made a mistake. And so on teams where people feel safe, they learn… They make a mistake and they learn from it.”

4. Connections

Next is a layer he calls Connections. “You’ve got these awesome, self-aware individuals as the atomic unit of the team, and now we connect together into a cohesive whole… Now you’ve got an awesome team, they really are aligned, they’re mutually connected, people know what they want, they know what they want as a group, and they can align toward whatever their goal is.”

The Fifth Layer?

According to Kasperowski, you could put anything on the stack on top of that. “You could put, for example, Scrum on top of that. If you’ve ever worked with a Scrum team that doesn’t have these elements of group emotional intelligence or psychological safety, that team isn’t going to be a well-performing team. They’re gonna be a mediocre team at best. And no matter what they do, if they don’t build up these skills, these behaviors, this connection with each other, they’re just not gonna perform at that high level.”

Excerpts were taken from this recent Agile Amped podcast episode:

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