What does it take to have high performing teams?

There are many people out there preaching sophisticated techniques and selling certificates that are supposed to help you with building teams and having “agile” organizations. But if there is one thing I learned with the time is that the best ideas are always the simplest.

And here is a simple one.


Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

I remember when I got my first Scrum Master certification and I thought I was ready for everything. You could bring me any projects and people, I would make it happen.

A few years later, I realized the amount of bullshit I went through and how naive is the idea of thinking that one methodology can solve all your problems. No, it can not.

During my career, I learned all sorts of fancy practices to deal with different challenges, but none of them were more insightful than this one I will tell you now. It comes from this video, which I highly recommend. But don’t worry, you don’t need to watch it now to understand what I want to show you.

What you really need to understand is the diagram below:


Before we continue, let’s give some clarity to the term psychological safety: “is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”. With clarity, the speaker means people are aligned and share a common understanding of the mission or task at hand. Now we are good to go.

A party is a company where you can literally do whatever you want, and nobody cares. C-level and managers have a lot of crazy business ideas without specific strategies and tactics to achieve results. People talk a lot, have fun, but nothing relevant is getting done. Sales teams usually are closing a few contracts with total misalignment with the rest of the company, without understanding if the thing which was sold can be built.

The chaos is very similar to the party, except for one thing: employees feel unsafe, and the leadership of the company has super high expectations without giving enough clarity and context for the teams. Literally, everybody is feeling bad, since teams don’t know precisely what is expected and can not do a great job, and leadership thinks people are incompetent since their impact is small.

The bittersweet part is that I had the chance to work with a mix of the two scenarios above, and one of the things which I found interesting is that some outstanding people ended up working on these types of orgs, they try so hard to make things work until they get to the point of burn out, and leave the company. One of the lessons from all this: don’t waste your time in crappy places, regardless of how good you are, a messed up company is just going to lead you to frustration.

Moving to the next quadrant, dictatorship is self-explanatory. From Wiki: “A dictatorship is a form of government characterized by a single leader or group of leaders and little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media”. In this case, teams have a lot of clarity on what is expected, but you better not speak up or try to change the status quo, you should just do what needs to be done and stay in your cubicle. New ideas are not welcome, and probably you will be negatively judged if you try something different. It’s a hostile place for creative minds.

And finally, the holy grail: high performing teams. After being more than 10 years working in tech companies, it feels obvious that if you don’t have excellent communication processes to ensure that teams understand the company’s mission and the goals for each quarter, it’s not going to work. If you don’t provide a space where people can share their thoughts in a safe environment, without fearing something disturbing can happen if she or he says something against the ideas of their leaders, it is not going to work. Some months ago, I wrote an article with a few tips to build high performing teams, but all of them can be reduced to these two things: give extreme clarity and psychological safety to your people; the rest will come naturally.

It is feasible to build a company where people ship impactful products and feel good at the same time but it requires work.

If you are a leader or a team member, and you see the problems your teams face regarding these quadrants, you can try to solve things in your sphere, but first ensure you are working in a place where this is possible, and you are not going to spend your energy for nothing.