4 Things to Transform an Underperforming Team

People Get Ready...

There are a lot of big words, and some complicated-to-explain concepts in this post.

I have been advised to take the big words out and simplify the explanations. I have decided against doing so, because I want to live by the second item on my list of things, which means, quite frankly, that I think anyone reading this is smart enough to figure out what I'm saying. To believe otherwise seems to me to be duplicitous.

You can get a dictionary, and/or let me have it in the comments if you'd like, and I will be happy to try to help in any way that I can to make sure that you understand this list of things. My direct experience is that if you follow the steps in this list of things, you can literally transform any team in just a few team meetings.

For those of you who don't follow football, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

I waited to write this until after the much-hyped "Har-Bowl" that featured the first meeting in NFL history of two teams coached by brothers. I had hoped that Jim Harbaugh's 49ers (full disclosure: I've been a fan of the 49ers since I was old enough to read the newspaper, since they are the team from the area in which I grew up) would have overcome substantial obstacles and won the game, but playing a game after traveling eastward across 3 time zones less than 100 hours after their last one proved to be a challenge they didn't overcome. That loss, however, doesn't lessen the things that can be learned from what has happened to the 49ers this year. The 4 things I discuss below are very much in evidence in the transformational turnaround that has made the 49ers one of the most compelling stories of this NFL season.

Over the duration of my career as a professional church staff member, it has become fashionable to substitute "team" for any other word describing a group of people working together. Finance committees are now teams. That conglomeration of people standing on the sanctuary platform and using microphones (or other amplification) are a team. Even the church staff is now a leadership team. You get the picture.

My specific expertise (at least that for which I have had the most training) is leading performance ensembles. And for a long time, I have been fascinated by, and have thought about the parallels between team sports and performance ensembles (Exhibit A, your honor, is this article, which includes a link to this article, which was published in a professional journal in 1978). My interest in this topic means that I get to rationalize the amount of time I spend watching team sports, but it also has helped me to differentiate between teams that are successful because of recruiting (for amateur athletics) or spending (for professionals); systems (playbooks); and leadership. As a team leader, it is important to me to know what works, and why, so that I can best help those I lead do the task to which they are collectively called in the most successful manner. Here's a "Reader's Digest" version of what my fascination with this topic has helped me to understand:

  • Recruiting/spending can create dynasties over time, as component parts are added to replace those who are broken or who leave
  • Systems can create dynasties by simplifying decisions regarding talent, so that the "right" pieces are added to make the system work to maximum benefit

Ah...but then there is leadership. Leadership can create a dynasty over time, but a change in leadership becomes, as I have discussed elsewhere, a wild card. A change in leadership can kill a decade of dynasty in months, or weeks (or in extreme cases, in a day). A change in leadership can also take an underperforming team and turn it into a dynasty in a fairly short period of time, if the leader is given enough leeway. In sports, as in the church, the stakes can be high, which leads to leadership turnover, and sometimes a leader bounces around for a while before finding the right set of circumstances to be able to build a dynasty through a change of system or through recruiting. Some very talented leaders just bounce around, because their personalities don't match up, or their systems don't match up, or they don't make good recruiting decisions.

And then there are those seemingly extraordinary circumstances where a change of leadership produces an immediate result...turning an underpeforming team into one that can seemingly do no wrong. How does that happen? Why does that happen? No two circumstances are the same, but my observation - and experience - lead me to believe that there are 4 things you can do to transform an underperforming team.

You can skip ahead to the list if you can't wait, but I think it is important to understand that in most instances, the key word in the last sentence is underperforming. I am not talking about taking a group of people with no talent and in just a few minutes turning them into a superstar organization. This is common sense, really, but let me put it into these terms: it would be like taking a group of children who can't read yet, "leading" them to typewriters, and then, collectively, they produce Shakespeare (or Hemmingway, or whomever your favorite author is at the moment). It is not going to happen. There is only so much any leader can do with a group of people who have no talent...or no motivation...or no incentive...or no hope. That is why the third point in my list below is so critical.

An underperforming team, however, is often filled with talented people, or people with innate talent. It has people who are motivated, people who have an incentive, and people who have hope. It may even have a good recruitment track record, and a great system. Such a team underperforms primarily because of leadership. And to be clear, I am not saying LACK of leadership. I am saying BECAUSE of leadership. And if you feel that is an indictment of leadership, then try the shoe on to see if it fits...

My research, and my own trial and error experimentation leads me to believe that if you apply the following 4 things, the results can be transformational, and rapidly so. This is not an "all-inclusive list." I am not saying that you only need these 4 things. I am saying that without these 4 things, quick transformation of an underperforming team simply will not happen.

1. Expect the best possible result from the team's collective effort

I am being very careful to not say "expect perfection" or "don't tolerate less than the best." This first point is about corporate culture more than anything. It is not saying "I expect your best." It is saying "I expect that our efforts will transform our collective work into the best possible result."

I don't want to belabor this point, but I want to be very clear. This first point is not about motivation, or being a task master, or setting high standards. It is establishing a corporate culture of expecting success.

Teams that show this trait don't compete against opponents. They compete against their own individual and collective ideals of what is possible by working together at the highest level. These teams almost never look at the scoreboard. They are more interested in accomplishing the task that is set before them to the best possible end. When the time comes that the task is over, they (collectively, at least) do not need external validation of how they performed. They know how they did, and whether or not they did their best. These teams can fail when faced with insurmountable obstacles. But these teams will never quit in the face of an obstacle. Individually and collectively, they use an internal yardstick to measure their progress, and they look forward to the next goal, having learned as much as they can from the experience of tackling the task that has been at hand.

One of the classic characteristics of a team that applies this first thing on my list is their use of "we" language rather than "I" language. You will see members (and leaders) of this kind of team proactively supporting other members when that member makes a mistake. That support is almost always encouragement first, and then teaching second. In a rehearsal situation, for instance, it is an amazing thing to see people turning to each other to metaphorically "high five" someone who has done a great job, and to encourage someone who has made a mistake.

2. Give the team members credit for having the intelligence to understand and carry out intellectually and/or physically complex tasks

This is another way of saying don't let the lowest common denominator set the standard of performance. If a leader expects that a team will have trouble accomplishing a task, the team generally will have trouble accomplishing the task.

If the leader does not challenge the team to "rise to the occasion" the team will never transform...it will always underperform. To use Marva Dawn's terminology, a leader who "dumbs down" the expectations, or even the instructions, of a task will communicate a lack of respect for and belief in the team's ability to excel.

Am I saying that it will transform a group of 4 year olds into experts at quantum mechanics by giving those children Einstein's notes? No. But if you want those children to be a team who excels at quantum mechanics, you can't spend the first 20 years of their time together in conversations that only consist of "goo goo" and "gah gah."

Leaders frequently don't expect their teams to excel...or even to transform. They fail to understand that transforming a team means giving them a high level task, and expecting that they can accomplish that task.

But "wait a minute," you say... I know. That's point number 3...and it is complicated to explain.

3. Implement and use a corporate culture and/or training system that intentionally teaches people to get better, provides demonstrable evidence in accomplishment at each step in the process, and continually builds upon what has been learned to provide the tools for members of the team to apply independent thought when encountering a problem never seen before

I encourage you to re-read this third point, because I searched for a simpler way to put it, but, in the end decided (see number 2 above) to say what I mean and expect you to work at it until you figure it out.

If you didn't skip my football paragraph, you will be interested to know that a number of times this year, a 49er player has come into the huddle during an ongoing set of plays, and "drawn up" a not yet existing play based upon what that player has seen the other team do. In one case that player was a lineman (i.e. a member of a subset of team members who are often given little intellectual credit, because their job is to physically push other large people around "in the trenches," ergo they can't be smart), and the play he suggested (which they ran as their next play) gained 22 yards (for you non-football fans, that's good).

For many leaders, particularly in the realm of music performance ensembles, the idea of encouraging independent thought is anathema. For those leaders, it is about their being a leader...and showing it by not allowing the ensemble members to do anything that a leader hasn't "given them." To which I say hogwash.

In the musical arena, for example, it is ALWAYS better to teach people to be better musicians...and part of that teaching is to enable them to think on their own about what they have learned, and how to apply it. I can't tell you how many times an ensemble member has provided some musical or textual insight into a piece of music that I have just not seen, and that person's insight has made for a more informed rendition of the piece of music on the part of the ensemble I was leading.

It doesn't matter so much what system you use. It does matter that your system teaches people to get better, and think independently. If you stifle your people, it is the collective equivalent of making sure that everything crosses your desk before a decision can be made - controlling (and ultimately, in my opinion, intellectually insulting) behavior.

Teach your people well, because they are capable of extraordinary results if you give them the credit for being able to learn how to do complex things and provide them the instruction and tools to do so.

4. For each task facing the team, draw up a plan that, to succeed, consistently applies the first three things at the team's current level of expertise...plus a little bit more

Every team that transforms from underperforming to excelling is not satisfied to stand still Every task has something that requires a bit more...something. It might be doing something that has already been learned better, or it might be learning something new for the first time. But this is, again, a leadership issue.

If a leader is, at any point, willing to "settle," the transformation will stall, or stop. I am not suggesting that in any given task, the level of "more" can't be incrementally small. I am suggesting that, in music as in sports, you will have to "play the same opponent" again from time to time. You can't let a team believe that just because they have done well in that circumstance the last time, it will not require effort this time. It might be more fun this time, and the level of confidence might be higher, but there are always things to work on.By the same token, it is foolish for a leader to expect that because a team has learned the first 3 components of the system, they can make the leap to component 35 next. You can try, and they just might succeed. But if component 35 requires mastery of something not yet learned, and which only will be covered in component 17, you'll need an extraordinary set of circumstances to succeed...and if you fail, your team will very likely take several steps backward.

This fourth thing is an incredibly delicate dance that a leader has to do, and sometimes it must be done subtly, sometimes with bravado. Either way, it is a judgement call. But as a leader you MUST add this little bit more. Trust me. Here's the good news: it becomes the leader's opportunity to be creative. Teaching the system is...well, systematic. Giving them the credit to understand and carry it out is the devil in the details. Expecting the best possible result is the foundation upon which a program, and a team, is built. How you ask your team to solve a particular problem, or tackle a task is a chance for a leader to showcase what lies ahead. It is the equivalent of a movie trailer for the sequel. And, quite frankly, it is this creativity in problem solving that separates the leader who can transform an underperforming team from one who just knows what the steps are to doing so. As with the system you use, no two solutions are the same. The best solution is knowing your team, and giving them the game plan to succeed.

Final Thoughts

I have found that the single most common result from applying these four things is that people who don't want to work at something will self-select out of the team...particularly at the outset. I have also found that people will want to join the team after the process has started because they perceive that the team is successful, and they want to be part of that success.

People who don't want to work at succeeding self-select out during that stage of the process as well. I have learned not to fret about the "drop-outs." Those who stay are incredibly committed, eager to contribute, and self-motivated to see the team succeed. The team turns from a group of people who need a leader, to a self-directed community of people who collaborate to achieve extraordinary goals.

Do these teams still need leadership? Yes, because at some level these kind of teams are task oriented. Someone (or a subset of the team) needs to cast vision, and have the big picture in mind. But teams with these four things in place take care of their own business. They work individually and in small groups outside of team meetings (rehearsals), and come prepared to work collectively toward succeeding at any challenge laid in front of them. As a leader, I believe that there is no better group of people with whom I'd rather be associated.

What do you think? Is this too much work? Have you ever not put any boundaries on what your team might accomplish? Are you unwilling to let your team collaborate with you as equals? Food for thought.

4 Replies to “4 Things to Transform an Underperforming Team”

  1. ELMER CROSBY, JR says:

    very good. THANK YOU

  2. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks, Elmer. I hope you can put the information to good use.

  3. MARLA MAERTIN says:

    but what does one do as a music director when the senior (and only) pastor has been labeled “not the leader type”? and has proven that over and over again. our music team is tight; we all work well together, but the pastor “forgets” to do some of his tasks, which then make my team look like idiots in the worship service or at meetings. how does a team captain deal with a coach who can’t be in charge?

  4. Vern Sanders says:

    Marla –

    You may be able to get some helpful hints from Hugh Ballou.

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