Performance Teams!

Karl, Me, Marco and Paul with Jacques VI was lucky enough to score an invite last Friday to the Melbourne Grand Prix, and part of the experience was getting a tour of the paddock area, and seeing inside of the BMW Sauber F1 racing team’s garage. It was a truly amazing experience, watching the team managers, engineers, mechanics, drivers, technicians and support staff all working together to achieve the one goal, to get one of their cars across the finish line first. The other amazing part of the day was the way the event was run; it was efficiently planned, impeccably executed, and the residual feeling for me as a guest was one of comfort and exclusivity. Both sets of experiences resonated with me, for I saw some great lessons to be learned from both the race teams and the event organizers, that translate into what most of do as part of our day to day jobs.

So it occurred to me, don’t be the I in TEAM. Watching the BMW F1 team in action was inspirational. Yes you have some top dogs, guys like Mario Theissen and Jacques Villeneuve in the camp, but when you observe the complete team prepping the car, and working together on the lap data, and discussing strategy, you can see the dedication to a single objective in their eyes; to win the race.

I didn’t see any of the big noting amongst the mechanics as they tuned the cars; I didn't observe any shameless self promotion amongst the engineers as they analyzed the telemetry data or driver biometrics from the test laps, and there certainly wasn’t any rat holing or backstabbing going on amongst the drivers and their chief engineers and mechanics as they discussed strategy and tactics. It made me realize that one of the most destructive elements that prevents performance teams from forming is the desire of individuals to become greater than the whole team. It leads to selfish goals and objectives, but worst of all, the objectives that require a truly immense team effort, never get met, because no one person can meet them.

Case in point; as most already know, Microsoft has a review system where individuals are stack ranked and given a yearly review score. That score is based on a set of commitments, and ones ability to meet them. The challenge is, how do you meet your objectives if your objectives involve big problems that need a team effort to solve? You don’t. You choose smaller, individual style objectives, knowing that if the donkey dung hits the fan, then you can execute rogue, and still make your number.

It takes a big gamble to say at the start of the year, stuff the number (and for you, it may not be a number, but a set of KPI’s, etc), I’m going to commit to some huge objectives, and I’m going to get my team to help me out. And we’re all going to say stuff the number (because let’s face it, the number didn’t really mean anything to us before it was “THE NUMBER”), and share a single set of objectives. That way, those shared objectives can be really meaty, big ones. And instead of trying to claw my way to the top of the ranking system, I can focus on helping my team members meet their objectives, because their objectives are my objectives, so suddenly my focus is on making them extraordinary. I reckon this would also solve the other killer of performance teams, those annoying, cringe worthy moments when one of the team jumps up in the air and screams, “Look at moi”! You know what I’m talking about, it’s that email to the whole company saying, “Hi, just thought I’d let you know I did x, figjam!”, or that conversation in a meeting that has no start, finish, or purpose, other than to make a statement. Or that rogue element that goes off an does something completely miss aligned with the teams objectives, just because it appeals to the individuals goals and objectives (eh hem, I please guilty your honor). I suppose it’s everyone in the team focusing on the finish line, not a bunch of finish lines, but just one, and constantly working on tuning, tactics, strategy, training, all so that they can cross that finish line, hopefully first (whatever the metaphor for first may be for you).

Again, this is a tough call, and requires truly amazing people to shift the focus, to push back against the corporate norm, and to say, my measure of success is not based on beating the guy next to me, but instead, to see him get across first, because I would rather see my own team take out the flag than one of my competitors. Which brings me to my last point, the last thing that I reckon completely kills performance teams, and thats when you have a team of brilliant individuals, who are inadvertently tackling each other on their way to the finish line, while the competitor sneaks in amongst the fallen bodies (Steve Bradbury style). Gather up all the energy expended in word smithing emails that snipe your colleague to highlight their flaws addressed to a cc: line that includes everyone but God, or those threads that go around that max out the addressable memory space on Blue Gene, and then compel that energy towards the overall objectives. In fact, frown upon such behavior, cultivate a team culture that calls out those types of dissension, just like the guy who breaks the build has to wear the jester's hat, these kinds of petty grievances should be stomped out, and made a example of. Why? Because then the teams psyche evolves to a point where each time they get the feeling they want to grab hold of one of the cardinal sins that prohibits performance teams, they get a sharp pain in their stomach, and realize its just plain wrong, and then refocus themselves on the end game.

Now I’m not trying to get holier than though, in fact, in the confessional, my performance team sins would be great, and it would be just that I suffer, but I’m looking for a new plan of attack, because just like every good team, I’m dreaming of a podium finish.