Strategy•Mar 17, 2023
Lessons from the armed forces: The role of individuals on high-performing teams
Everyone wants to be on a “high-performing team,” but what makes a team high performing? Kellogg School of Management Professor Leigh Thompson defines a team as “a group of people who are interdependent with respect of information, resources, knowledge, and skills who seek to combine their efforts to achieve a common goal.”
This group of people is split into leaders and followers; however, they are all “teammates.” In the military, and specifically within high-performing teams such as special operations units, being a great teammate enables the entire team to function with maximum effectiveness. Without each teammate performing in their respective function and actively contributing to the group, they would never be able to achieve the designation of a high-performing team.
So how do individuals on a team independently operate in a way that enhances the whole? What ingredients are needed for a team member to do their part to create a high-performing team?
The members of the Credera Veterans Network (CVN), a group of Credera employees whose goal is to help veterans at Credera feel a sense of community at the firm and utilize the valuable skills gained during their military service, reflect on key attributes from their military experiences, many of which were learned in combat environments and with special operations units. These attributes can be applied by individuals across various industries and organizations.
What separates good from great? 4 key factors
The idea of high-performing teams transcends every aspect of collaborative human relationships. Sports teams, corporate leadership, students, and the military study what makes successful teams operate effectively. In the interest of being concise, being “high performing” as opposed to merely “adequate” comes down to four key factors. A high-performing team must have individuals who are self-aware, seek to contribute to a common operating picture, maintain accountability and ownership, and proactively address conflict on the team.
A common mantra among service members is “know yourself and seek self-improvement.” If this mantra is embedded in the culture of your team, it creates an environment of self-aware individuals capable of receiving feedback for the betterment of the team.
Broken down into two parts, the first step of “know yourself” lays the foundation of a team member capable of receiving feedback. As an individual, identify your weaknesses, your blind spots, and your strengths. When you receive feedback with this knowledge you can apply the “seek self-improvement” part of the mantra and can quickly act on it.
As team members provide feedback, acknowledge they are addressing a perceived shortcoming in each area, you can cross reference your list of weaknesses, blind spots, and strengths to categorize the feedback. If it is a known weakness, then produce a remediation plan. If it is something you are blindsided by, think about the root cause of the feedback and how you can adjust.
For example, if your strength is being highly involved and extremely confident, employ more humility in practice. The permutations of this exercise are limitless, but a “great” team will always be filled with members who have the self-awareness to know themselves and seek self-improvement.
2. Create a common operating picture
The idea that a team combines their efforts to achieve a common goal is only a concept until a goal is defined and, more importantly, shared among all members of the team. Creating a common operating picture (COP) is a practical, yet essential, part of ensuring a team is aligned with the same goal. COPs are extensively used in emergency management, military campaigns, and multi-agency law enforcement operations. Similarly, agile projects often involve rapid execution, involving multiple parties, in complex environments. The ambiguity of these situations can be strongly mitigated through the creation and use of a COP.
Any team member can create a COP, but all members of a team, regardless of their specialty, should intimately understand the information presented. When creating and maintaining a COP, make sure to address:
Is the information relevant?
Is the information up to date?
Is the information clearly understandable to all members of the team?
Does the information align with the team’s goal? (e.g., client expectations, leader’s intent)
Additionally, options for housing a COP are virtually limitless, and teams should focus on what best suits their needs, whether that be collaboration software such as Miro or Jira or more analog methods such as whiteboards or tabletops. It is essential that whatever method used is accessible and manageable by all team members.
It is crucial to keep in mind when creating a COP that it is merely a tool for keeping the team aligned with the common goal. The COP should ultimately contribute to creating a common situational awareness between all members of the team and should not replace other means of team management and collaboration.
3. Accountability and ownership
Military accountability is a forcing function to ensure team members are responsible for their actions and are held responsible for meeting their commitments. This type of accountability must start internally with everyone doing what they say they will do and carrying their share of the load. This idea expands externally as teammates hold each other responsible for their tasks, ultimately helping to build trust across the team and ensuring everyone is working toward the same goals. Ownership differs in that it encourages teammates to take initiative and be proactive in solving problems, addressing shortcomings, and driving the team toward success. It focuses on the success of the team rather than the individual and helps to foster a sense of pride and responsibility in the team's work.
Without accountability, you cannot ensure individuals are following through on commitments, potentially leading to poor performance and overall inefficiencies. Without ownership, you risk allowing blame and mediocracy to hinder the team’s ability to solve problems and grow toward excellence.
Ultimately, when balanced together, accountability and ownership create a culture of excellence where teammates are empowered to take ownership of their work and take responsibility for its success. This, in turn, leads to a high-performing team that consistently achieves its goals and delivers exceptional results.
4. Address conflict
There is always an urge to not address conflict for the sake of “keeping the peace.” Keeping the peace may be good, but high-performing teams must address conflict and collectively become better from it. There is a common military saying that is applicable to this team dynamic: “It is not personal, it is business.” This phrase is normally followed by tough conversations, negative interactions, or harsh reprimands.
Like all things military there are regulations that govern these types of conversations, in other words, there are rules to the game. The main rules of addressing conflict are 1) address the issue not the person, 2) only say something if it can add value, and 3) own your mistakes.
Teams can have different rules depending on the members, but the result should be the ability to address conflict effectively. When member of a team understand these rules, conflict becomes a mechanism for improvement rather than an inhibitor to progress.
Putting it into practice
These attributes, when applied at a consistent, individual level, contribute to creating high-performing teams. At Credera, this not only provides value internally, but also is expressed when working with our clients. One of the things that makes Credera special is our emphasis on having a “boutique” feel, meaning we are focused on creating tailored solutions and teams that service unique needs. We seek to maintain strong team bonds and can live that out when everyone strives to be the best teammate they can be. This mindset permeates how we operate and stands out with our clients. All these attributes add up and compound to create exceptional teams who can quickly integrate with a client team and deliver excellence.
If you’re interested in learning more about teams at Credera or exploring our culture, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.