5 Step Process for Improving Team Performance

In order to improve the performance of teams that I have consulted with and coached, I go through this five step process to obtain the best possible results. You can apply this to your team as well, so that they become a Top-Flight Team.

These five steps are simple to perform and execute. They allow you to find roadblocks in the team’s performance and obtain their commitment to change these for better results. The five steps are outlined as follows – 1. Understand context, 2. Define issues affecting performance, 3. Focus on awareness of the team, 4. Gain and embed a commitment to change and 5. Measure progress and obtain feedback.

These steps must be performed in sequence and you must not move on to the next step until you have exhausted your options in the step you are currently engaged in. This will ensure that you have extracted the maximum potential for improvement possible at that time. If you feel that, whilst going through the steps, that there could be more that the team can give, then simply repeat until you have gained the maximum you can.

Here are the steps with further explanation. The example I will use to demonstrate each step is of a recent rowing crew that I coached –

  1. Understand context

An objective, holistic view of the team and other elements that it interacts with, such as environment or market must be taken and reviewed. This is so that the team’s performance can be seen in relation to its constituent parts and those around it which may affect performance. This could take the form of research into the team, its efforts, what tasks it performs and the market it is in. You must have a wider view of the situation and a good understanding of how the team could move forward before moving on. It is key to understand the motivations behind how the team wants to perform and also the language that they use to communicate, otherwise you will miss the underlying reasons for underperformance and will not be heard when discussing them.

The crew I recently coached had consistently placed in the middle of the pack in races over the summer season. Relative to their opposition they were no worse off with physiological attributes and proficiency in the sport. However, they seemed to be unable to break through their glass ceiling. I sat down and reviewed each of their performances relative to the competition in each of the races they had completed recently and also looked at performances in different racing categories for comparison.

  1. Define Issues Affecting Performance

By having an open mind in analysis of the holistic view in which the team performs it soon becomes evident where potential issues might arise. In this Step you must hone in on the one, two, or three at maximum, critical issues leading to underperformance. It is important to engage the team in this process so that they start to become more aware of their situation and analytical in their thinking about the way in which they perform. It is great if you can collect some data at this stage to back up your analysis and objectively look at this relative to the contextual picture you have created in Step 1, to back up your case for change leading to improved performance.

With the crew, it was obvious that, although they were finishing races in the middle of the pack, they started races off the pace by some distance. After the first quarter of the race had taken place, the crew would be behind relative to the competition at all times, giving themselves work to do to come back on the field at the end. Getting 9 individuals to move a boat from standstill to race pace is a complicated process. Much like the combustion engine in a car, the constitute parts must work in unison with the correct timing otherwise a misfire would take place. All this is taking place whilst going up through the gears from stationary. Today’s cars have sophisticated electronic systems to govern timing. The added complication in a rowing boat is that it has nine brains which are not interconnected, each being affected by nerves, stress and the monkey mind in different ways. We knew that, biomechanically speaking, our start procedure would be effective, somehow the application of it wasn’t.

  1. Focus on awareness of the team

In this step you should coach the team to be more aware of their situation and get them to take ownership of the issues at hand as well as solutions to relieve them. I use the GROW method to gain self-awareness in the team. GROW stands for Goals, Reality, Options and When/Where/Which/What. This gives a framework on which to take the team through the roadblocks in place, work towards taking ownership of these and creating ways of overcoming them. It is important to set Goals first in this framework, before tackling reality, as this will allow the team to be more creative with the Options stage in devising solutions.

By simply looking at the data available from the races which they had entered, the crew quickly realised that their start protocol was not as effective relative to the competition. By going through the GROW framework with the crew as a whole, we were able to set a Goal of being ahead of our opposition after a quarter race distance. As the crew talked about their goal and looked at the reality of the situation they started to discuss their individual application of the protocol at the start of the races that had taken place. By becoming more aware of how each of them was applying themselves to the process they realised that there were individual inconsistencies.

During a rowing race start the strokes begin shorter than usual and build up to full length over time. In this instance, the length of their strokes were out of alignment with each other. When some of the crew were at half-length stroke, others were fractionally longer leading to their oars being out of time. This is like they crew taking one, two or three people out of the boat and racing against a boat with the full compliment of rowers. By not applying themselves in exactly the same time in exactly the same way, they open up a deficiency of propulsion of the boat. For the crew, this was only very subtle. In fact we were not able to detect this visually, but in a sport fought in inches, subtlety matters.

They became more self-aware of what they were doing relative to their crew mates. They were also able, with me, to come to a consensus of how to apply themselves as a unit to get the most speed out of the boat possible. They led the process of creating the consensus which was very prescriptive, whilst still having a solution which could be adapted if required. Hopefully this would eliminate the roadblock to the performance they sought.

  1. Gain and embed a commitment to change

As part of the GROW method, by enabling your team to take ownership of the roadblocks to performance and by becoming self-aware of the situation, the process will naturally lead to the team committing to change the reality they face and the solutions to seek the performance that is required. However, you must ensure that you gain commitment, not just verbally or in writing, but in the actions they take. If possible, it is important to use data to track performance of the solutions to roadblocks put in place by the team. That way there is immediate feedback, which can be communicated to the team, making sure that the team, with their new self-awareness, can see the fruits of their labours. This will embed the change as the team realise that they have taken ownership of the situation, applied themselves to create solutions to roadblocks and are performing better as a result.

With the rowing crew we were able to test their solutions to the problems we found in the start protocol in training. Once they were comfortable with the new process that came about through their consensus, we were able to give them feedback using GPS tracking data to show them the change in speed they would have during the first quarter of a race. Although the new process would mean that they faced further duress during the race start, it would put them under a little more physiological stress, they came to understand that this was worth the cost, knowing their pace relative to others as the race progressed was good. Again, they were able to reflect on this through the self-awareness they had gained from Step 3.

  1. Measure progress and obtain feedback

Here it is helpful to use the metrics established in Steps 1 and 2 to review the team’s performance before and after the solutions to roadblocks have been discovered. These can be shown to the team to further embed the change they took ownership of establishing. Also at this stage it is important for you to obtain feedback from the team in order to make sure that individuals believe in the change and to ascertain whether any improvements can be made to the process the next time change needs to take place.

By this time the crew were ready for their final big race of the season, which they had been working towards for nine months. Having developed the awareness themselves and created the improvements to their start protocol in the preceding few weeks, they felt ready to take their opposition. A few days before the race, we decided to test the crew against opposition who, on paper, would be stronger than them. We arranged a short race against a boat from the United States that were talented and we knew would be very strong, containing athletes that had been recruited to their team due to their athletic ability. Of the two races, we lost the first narrowly. However, as they had created a way of adapting the start protocol to the situation, the crew were able to change their effort. In the second race, they beat the boat from the US by a much greater margin that they had lost the previous time. This was an overachieving result for the crew, even though it was just in practice. A crew from our club had not raced and beaten a boat of that caliber for a very long time. In fact, no one at the club could remember when they had. This proved a fantastic measure for the crew, gave them and me the feedback we required and demonstrated that the protocol which they had put in place worked very effectively.

A few days later on race day, the crew beat their local rivals, a club that they had lost to previously in the season and a club that we had not beaten for over 20 years. It is difficult to say with certainty, due to changing environmental conditions at races, but we estimate that the crew increased their speed by around 8 seconds over a 2000m course. That is a significant amount in a sport won or lost by very small margins. All that for no additional physiological improvement required by the athletes, simply by working more effectively together.

It might sound simplistic that the 5 Step process applied to a rowing boat could improve their performance. However, without going through the steps, making sure that we covered each fully, we would not have uncovered the roadblocks to improvement. The individuals in the crew would not have realised that they were all thinking slightly differently on each stroke during the start protocol and hence performing each differently from one another. In a race of around 230 rowing strokes, each must be maximised to achieve the fastest time. Being aware of what they were doing relative to each other allowed them to realise this and come to a consensus to work together as a team better to improve their performance.

By enabling self-awareness and taking ownership of small wins, any team, be it in business, academia or sport, can improve their performance.

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