Have you been part of a high-performing team?

New Thinking 21 March 2013 Steph Cooper

I’ve heard my colleague Todd Brackley ask people to describe their best team experience. And more often than not, they describe an experience of a team coming together around a crisis – say a critical bug in production. In that crisis, the goal is clear, people share information, they feel empowered to make decisions and they fill the necessary roles to solve the problem. And together, they feel a sense of achievement.

I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a few great teams. In one instance, our goal was particularly challenging – to join the dots between technology, customer care and marketing and finance to establish the best possible customer processes before the launch of a new telco. It was a mad rush to launch date so we were in danger of being put in the ‘too hard’ basket. But with clear goals, a strong sponsor who kept us on track and supported us as needed, a very skilled team and collaboration from people across the business, we were able to deliver an integrated customer experience in time for launch.

And I have to say that the sense of achievement and energy that comes from building on each other’s ideas and producing great results, is truly addictive.

But, unfortunately, whether in crisis or in the normal running of a project, not everyone in the NZ IT industry has had this experience. And, in fact, many people have such low expectations of the team environment that they just perform their role with an eye on their backs to ensure they won’t be blamed for any failures.

So, if you’ve never experienced the feeling of a high-performing team yourself, how can you create it for yourself and others?

I’m the first person to shrink into my seat when someone in a training session says “Right, let’s play a game”.  But I’ve had to admit that you can create a fake environment in a game and genuinely get the feeling of being in a high-performing team. 

We were on company conference and told we were going to play a Scrum simulation game (groan). Teams were formed at each table, we were given tasks with points and the stopwatch was started. Round one was hideous – we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t have enough time, we were all disagreeing and we achieved nothing. I was very grumpy. We retrospected and agreed a few changes. Round two, we were better. And by round three, I was doing an interpretive dance on video tape to get the maximum points possible for the team.

So why does this work? How is it possible to generate that energy and focus within two hours when many people don’t experience it in their whole career?

One reason it works can be explained by ‘ba’. A Japanese term, the concept of ba comes from the field of knowledge management and is defined as “a shared space that serves as a foundation for knowledge creation”1 and is often simply described as the ‘enabling context’:

“[. . .] within KM, what is managed is not knowledge itself, but solely the context where knowledge emerges and is socially constructed (‘‘ba’’). [. . .] knowledge as such cannot be managed; it is just promoted or stimulated through the creation of a favorable organizational context.”2

To draw a parallel – it is not about managing the work (or knowledge), it is about managing the enabling context. Look again at the game. The selection of tasks is arbitrary. The game focuses on providing the right conditions (or space); a shared mission, autonomy and authority, the pressure of time and clear indicators of success.

“Ba can be built intentionally, or created spontaneously. Top management and knowledge producers can build ba by providing physical space such as meeting rooms, virtual space such as a computer network, or mental space such as common goals.”4

This concept of ba was introduced to knowledge management by Nonaka and Konno. Nonaka and Takeuchi had earlier written the New New Product Development Game3 (one of the primary origins of Scrum). And now you can see Jeff Sutherland and Dean Leffingwell extending the principle of self-organising teams with the concept of ba in their teaching of Scrum and the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). You can see in the quote below that what is necessary for ba is very similar to the values expressed in Agile methods. And particularly the values of the servant leader.

“Ba should be ‘energised’. For that, knowledge producers have to supply the necessary conditions, such as autonomy, creative chaos, redundancy, requisite variety, and love, care, trust and commitment.”4

I accept that there is more to be added to this around developing a high-performing team, about moving from game to reality and how, over time, a ‘performing’ team will need to more explicitly agree the way they will work together and, in particular, how they will resolve disputes. Maybe in the next blog.

So while I cringe at ‘audience participation’, I am definitely an optimist when it comes to the magic that happens when a team of people build on each other’s ideas and skills to solve problems.

So why not consider trying these sorts of games with your team and then reflect on:

• What happened?  

• What were the consequences of that? and;

• What would that look like in the real world for us?

And more explicitly, what ‘enabling context’ needs to be created and supported to help your team be successful. And if management can focus on that, the team can then focus on the work.


1 Nonaka, I. & Konno, N. (1998) The concept of "ba": Building a foundation for knowledge creation. California Management Review, 40, 40-54

2 Chun Wei Choo, Rivadávia Correa Drummond de Alvarenga Neto, (2010) "Beyond the ba: managing enabling contexts in knowledge organizations", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 14 Iss: 4, pp592-610

3 Takeuchi, H. and Nonaka, I. 1986. The New New Product Development Game, Harvard Business Review, January/February, 285-305

4 Nonaka, I., Toyama, R. and Konno, N. (2000), ‘‘SECI, ba and leadership: a unified model of dynamic knowledge creation’’, Long Range Planning, Vol. 33, pp5-34