Maintaining High Performance Teams During Change

by John P. Kotter; Harvard Business School Press

In his book, Leading Change, John P. Kotter states that teams with sufficient trust can be effective in today's business environment of dramatic change and can sustain their high performance. Kotter insists that teams built on mutual trust and respect can thrive during organizational change if they possess the following characteristics:

  • shared vision and goals
  • shared leadership and accountability
  • continuous learning and development
  • a customer focus
  • capability to gather and use feedback and data

While most of these attributes seem to be common sense, many teams fail to incorporate them. As a result, minor and major agency changes catch teams off guard, undermine their productivity, and often cause them to question their purpose, feel defensive, or just crumble.

Shared Vision

Establishing a shared vision is critical. It coordinates the actions of individual members toward agreed upon goals. This vision should be easily understood and communicated and should support the teams' efforts to provide better products or services to customers. The vision should be desirable, focused, feasible, and supported by the group. With clarity of direction, each team member can focus on "trying to make things better, not worse" without having to check in with management all the time.

Shared Leadership

Successful teams develop leadership skills and shared responsibilities, which allow team members to proactively address change. For example, successful teams share leadership responsibilities and hold all team members accountable for the team's performance. This encourages team members to share issues and concerns with the group and maintain an open forum. Also, team members support changes in work assignments, resources, and priorities when they realize it will aid in the team's performance. In addition, as leaders, the members learn to value each other's talents and how to maximize them.

Continuous Learning and Development

Ongoing training and development for the team members is also critical. Some high performance teams spend as much as 30 percent of their time in training on such subjects as team building, leadership, communication, coaching, technical knowledge, computer skills, problem-solving, budget process, conflict resolution, critical thinking, and writing. This systematic training breeds a feeling of "esprit de corps." Each member feels equally important to the team and responsible for improving both technical and interpersonal skills. Most importantly, members are given the opportunity to use the skills they learn immediately after the training takes place.

Customer Focus

High performing teams pay attention to their customers and focus on customer requirements, satisfaction, and complaints. By using customer satisfaction surveys, performance goals, and informal recommendations from internal and external customers, teams can continuously improve performance.

Feedback and Data

Successful teams meet often to review current performance and develop improvement plans using clear performance measures. For example, using weekly or monthly data from customer satisfaction measurement systems allows the team to direct its energy to reducing errors and to improving the quality or timeliness of its products or services.

Implications for the Future.

This type of high performing team, according to Kotter, will be needed throughout organizations in the twenty-first century, especially at the top of the organization. One executive does not have the time or expertise to "absorb rapidly shifting competitor, customer, and technological" information. Instead, a "core team" at the top is needed to create and communicate the corporate vision and empower the workforce to meet fast-shifting realities and challenges more effectively than a traditional, hierarchical executive staff.