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Simply the best through highly effective teams

In the spirit of the Olympics and our theme for the first quarter of 2010, which is "simply the best in 2010," I would like to take a moment to talk about a few things we need to do in order help move closer to being "simply the best".

If you were to think about an Olympic Athlete (say Jennifer Heil), you may wonder what it took for her to be an Olympic medalist two times over. Most of us would say that she's got the talent, the commitment, and the passion for excelling at her sport. And if you asked her, she'd probably agree and say, "Yes, but there was a whole team of people supporting and working with me to achieve my goals." Essentially, Jennifer didn't win the medals on her own. It took a highly effective and aligned team of coaches and specialists to make it all possible.

So how were Jennifer and her team able to be successful? Well, the first thing was that they knew what they were trying to achieve: win a medal (ideally gold). It's quite simple, you need to first know what it is that you are going for before you can go out and do it. Otherwise, how do you know if you've made any progress? So the overarching goal was to win a medal, but in order to do that Jennifer needed to accomplish several smaller and very specific goals. For instance, decrease her time by one second, and make sure she can execute her jumps consistently and flawlessly.

The next step was for the team to create a plan and then execute on it. This was no easy task, as that's really the hardest part.

So, let's look at this through the lens of a professional services firm like Habanero. Our clients' products and services would be like "creating world class athletes", our client would then be like "the team of coaches", and Habanero would be like "one of the specialists that the team works with".

Success in business is just as easy to define as success in sport — every business must make a profit in order for it to continue to provide its products and / or services. This is true whether it's for profit, not-for profit, or even government for that matter — the rules of economics apply across all of these types of organizations. The benefit to the client [or for Habanero] of being the best however means that the effort to maintain and / or increase their level of excellence or market share is much easier than if they had to work to overtake someone else. You can refer to Seth Godin's "The Dip" for more on this aside.

So, after we acknowledge that the overarching goal of our client is to provide its products and / or services profitably, we then need to become intimately aware of what our client's business is and what short-term and long-term goals our client has. It is only then that we will be able to effectively assist our client in achieving its goals. Therefore, once it comes time to complete a project for our client, our first focus should be on reaffirming with the team what it is that we are working towards solving / improving, and what the project's critical success factors are. Then, during planning and execution, every member of the team simply needs to stay focused solely on delivering the most important items that will ensure the critical success factors are met.

So how can a team be highly effective?

First, as described above, the team must be aligned on what it is that they are working towards accomplishing. In a professional services firm, this understanding must be consistent from the sales-focused practitioner that made the deal all the way to individual members of the project team delivering it.

Another important factor is that all members of the project team must be constantly working on improving their craft in whatever way works best for them.

Finally, the team needs to be able to work well together. This sounds obvious, but in practice it isn't that simple. Take for example, Canada's men's hockey team since the introduction of NHL players three Winter Olympics ago:

  • the goal was straight forward and everyone was in alignment — win every game and take home the gold medal
  • on paper, because of having a full roster of NHL players, the Canadian team was better than all the rest
  • however, Canada has won gold only once with no other medals in either of the two other Olympic Games

To be able to work together, everyone on the team must first trust each other. This doesn't mean trust in each other's abilities (although that is very important). "Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers' intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group." (Taken from Patrick Lencioni's book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team"). There are several ways to help break down this barrier and develop trust within a team. The best way is to get to know each other, strengths and weakness, and how you would best interact with each other. Trust is also something earned over time and requires commitment from everyone on the team to continue to be open and honest.

It is only after enabling a "high trust" environment that the team is able to engage in healthy conflict around approach, design, issues, etc. And it is only after the team has been able to engage in an open discussion before every member will be able to commit to whatever plan is decided upon by the team or its leader if required. Once everyone on the team commits to the plan, then, and only then, are they able to be (and hold each other) accountable for their part in achieving the goal that was defined by (and with) the client.

So, no matter where you are on that chain of delivering value to your clients, always remember:

You should always know what critical success factor or goal you are working towards helping the client achieve

If you don't have any defined critical success factors

  • You can assume that you are helping the client provide its products and / or services in a profitable way, then
  • You still need to ensure that the client's interim goals and critical success factors are defined so that you have something to work towards and show progress

Constantly work towards mastering your craft

Take advantage of mentoring or coaching opportunities and focus on your strengths

A team is only successful if it can work together

  • Take time at the beginning and during a project to get to know one another (strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes)
  • Always err towards over communicating with each other rather than assuming the other team members know what you are thinking (that will only come with lots of experience working together)

Our success is our clients' success. So if we're able to help our clients succeed better than everyone else, then we "simply are the best".