Building a high functioning team

Coaching Delivery MethodThere 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.

Will Karlsen and I have been working for the past decade (or even longer) trying to understand this and after much consideration, research and head scratching, we’ve defined it!  What it takes to be a truly high functioning team.  You will no doubt be pleased to hear that there is a model, plus what we are calling ‘my high functioning team footprint’.

Here’s the model for you to ponder…


There is a fair bit of explanation behind each idea within the model, but for the purposes of this blog I’m going to cut to the quick and take you straight to the 4 elements of our footprint (the steps required to engender high functioning) which can be traced within the following sentence:

Two or more people, working together within a prosperous environment, towards a shared purpose.

We’ve summarised the footprint using 4 C’s that sub divide this sentence:

Two or more people (Collaboration),

working together (Competence),

in a prosperous environment (Community),

towards a shared purpose (Clarity).

Operationally it looks like this:


Clarity, competence and collaboration interlinked within a safe environment of a comfortable community.  We have found that all of these steps have significance and application within high functioning teams.


I’ve recently written on the topic of ‘Building Comfortable Communities’ so have a read.  It is the community that surrounds the three other operational areas beginning with ultra high ‘clarity’ of purpose.


Linking a strong organisational or functional purpose with day to day activity is always evident in high functioning teams.  It’s the thing that gives them common purpose and ultimately ensures that all parts are contributing meaningfully to the collective desired outcome.  Clarity of what we call ‘the golden thread’ between strategy and operations provides the barometer against which managers and team members are able to test their actions.  In high performing teams it’s often all about action, heads are down and everyone is busy.  By comparison, the high functioning team is more able to quickly ascertain which actions to focus on, and perhaps more importantly, which are wasteful.


You are staring risk or even failure in the face if you empower someone who is not competent to complete an activity.  High functioning teams are always made up of highly competent people.  That’s not to say that they have stopped learning, or are competent in ‘all’ situations – the reverse is more true.  It’s that the managers and teams place a high value on domain expertise.  They support development, they enable experimentation they give space for mistakes to occur safely – all in the name of building high competence across the community.  They are often able to flex roles, support other areas that are under pressure, make insightful decisions and self manage the task load (Will gives a great example of this in this episode of Squeeze the podcast).


It’s incredible to observe, but robust research (such as that carried out by Gillian Tett) is suggesting the advent of more and more powerful technology has not served to improve our collaboration.  In fact it has forced ever increased fragmentation between different functions and divisions of many organisations.  Gillian writes of organisations that have great brands, all the right skills, in fact everything they need to command a new emerging market, yet they fail at the first collaboration post.  They are just too fragmented to capitalise on the sum of the parts.

Building a high functioning team is not easy, but it is attainable and will (time and again) trump those teams that focus solely on performance.  Implementing initiatives that contribute to each of the 4 C’s can indeed boost your performance, but it will be through much greater interdependence not independence.

To listen to Will and I explore this further, tune into ‘Squeeze’ the podcast episode 2 on all podcast platforms.

Bob Bannister

Ships Captain