Why team ‘function’ is more important than team ‘performance’.

There is a clear difference between high performing teams and high functioning teams.

Put simply, many high performing teams are not necessarily high functioning. They achieve what they achieve through effort, blood, sweat and frequently tears. Performance in these organisations is exhausting, often stressful, there is fall out and discontent. They are battle zones. In truth, these are not pleasant environments in which to work, but so often we put up with it because when we jump we find exactly the same issues emerging in the fire as well as the frying pan.

In contrast high functioning teams are positively slick, they are pleasant supportive places to exist. They operate in such a different zone that performance becomes the by-product. So nearly all high functioning teams are also high performing, but without the angst found in high performing teams that are not high functioning.

It’s this inability to function highly that we have witnessed time and time again. Almost everywhere you will find people working hard, everyone is busy, at least by the norms of their incumbent culture. Performance is striven for on all almost every front, but it’s like giving a diabetic with a headache some paracetamol when the reality is their blood sugar is too high. Working harder and faster, becoming increasingly busy is not the answer, improving the way we function is.

Effective collaboration between teams is crucial for organisational success, yet tensions and miscommunications frequently arise. Soft systems methodology provides a constructive approach to understand and enhance team relationships, improving the way they function. 

Here’s how it can be applied:

1. Define the Problem Situation

Gather information from members of the different teams to understand their perspectives. What issues or challenges exist in working across team boundaries? What goals or values do the teams share? Where are the discrepancies in viewpoints or preferred ways of working? Develop a rich picture visualising the current dynamics.

2. Develop Root Definitions 

Articulate the purpose and nature of each team by crafting a root definition, expressing their core transformational processes. For example, “Team A is an internal service provider delivering reliable technical infrastructure to business units.” Distill the essence of each team’s responsibilities, priorities and self-image.

3. Build Conceptual Models

Based on the root definitions, represent the ideal activities, relationships and flows for each team through conceptual models. This outlines how each team might function optimally from their own standpoint. Consider information flows, decision processes, monitoring systems, and more.

4. Compare Models to Reality

Compare the conceptual models to the actual current situation. Identify gaps between the ideal and real practices for each team. Develop hypotheses for why discrepancies exist, considering conflicting performance metrics, poor communication channels, or different cultural values.

5. Define Feasible Changes

Propose feasible changes that could improve inter-team working relationships, aligning with the conceptual models. Focus on enhancing communication, better coordinating project workflows, adjusting incompatible key performance indicators, and addressing cultural misunderstandings.

6. Take Action to Improve

Implement small incremental actions to change inter-team dynamics for the better. Meet regularly to review progress, gather feedback, and adjust the interventions based on the impact observed. It may take several iterations to see meaningful improvements to team alignment.

Soft systems methodology provides a thoughtful approach to unpack complex team relationships. By developing conceptual models aligned to each group’s perspective, organisations can gain insight into dysfunctional dynamics and make changes to enable smooth collaboration between teams. The focus is on pragmatically improving the situation rather than assigning blame. With effort and willingness to experiment, teams can function well and in turn, perform better.