The Stages to Becoming a Higher Performing Team: A Primer

Evolution-DevelopmentThe path to becoming a higher performing team and culture follows predictable stages. Recognizing and understanding this truth, if fully embraced, can fundamentally change the way you look at your organization. And more important, it will enable you to consciously and deliberately create the conditions for developing a high-performing team and culture.

The pathway to success is simple. Organizational development has predictable and knowable stages. Each stage has it's strengths, weaknesses and limitations. And there are clear milestones that need to be reached to move to the next higher stage of development. With this knowledge, you can map the path forward and establish clear and specific next steps for moving down that path.

Just as people, cultures and natural systems go through developmental stages, so do organizational cultures. Many organizational developmental theories have been proposed over the years and this is an active and interesting field of study. That being said, what we present here is a simple, pragmatic framework for developing high-performing teams and cultures that we’ve found to be very effective, based on over 20 years of experience with organizations of all types and sizes.

We call this developmental pathway the Evolutionary Stages. Some key benefits to looking at at organization through this lens are:

  • It depersonalizes your understanding and relationship to the issues your organization may be dealing with at any point in time.
  • It provides a path to becoming a high-performing team and enables you to locate where your team is on that path.
  • Knowing where your team is on the path to high performance enables you to: 1) recognize the pathologies that typically emerge in that stage; and 2) understand and address the key milestones that will enable you to evolve to the next stage.

Some Basics About Stage Development

At each stage in an organization's development, there are predictable issues and constraints that arise in response to various forces from within and without. For example, as a business grows, there is inevitably increasing complexity in many forms. More staff means there are more relationships to manage. Diversifying products and services generate more decisions that need to be made about the allocation of resources and responding to changing market forces. Thus, the structures and mindsets that worked at one point in time become constraints as the organization grows. New structures and mindsets need to be evolved to respond to these constraints and support moving to the next higher level of performance. The good news is that the key milestones and next steps for moving from one stage to the next can be clearly identified and then acted on.

Some other characteristics of stage development:

  • Higher stages can sustain higher levels of performance and growth, and are able to respond to greater complexity.
  • Teams can’t skip stages.
  • Stages build upon one another—strengths of one stage are refined and evolved to support moving to the next stage.
  • You can have attributes of more than one stage, but one stage dominates.
  • Leaders with higher stage perspectives can be threatening to lower stage leaders and teams.

The Stages To Becoming a High-Performing Team

Our Evolutionary Clock is a simple visual representation of the stages to becoming a high-performing team. Each of the four stages described below are arrayed around the clock from lower to higher stages. Using this tool, you can ask the question: “What time is it for my team and organization on the Evolutionary Clock?" This leads naturally to asking: "What are my team's constraints to moving to the next stage on the clock? And what milestones do we need to attain to achieve this?"  

Evolutionary Stages
What follows is a brief description of each of the four stages. Study this and then ask: “Where are we on the Evolutionary Clock?”

Stage I: Individual Contributor

  • Key Characteristic: A loose confederation of individual contributors (e.g., a typical start-up).
  • Leadership Mindset: Selling solutions.
  • Team Mindset: What’s in it for me?
  • System-of-Roles: A top influencer and top producers. Individuals play the roles they want to play.
  • Pathologies: Key stakeholders are unwilling to create and align with an effective hierarchy. Flatland hell—no one has the authority to ensure that tough issues are resolved. There is a lack of shared focus and accountability among team members.
  • Milestone for Evolving to Next Stage: Create a hierarchical, directive leadership structure.

Stage II: Directive Leader

  • Key Characteristic: A directive leader leading the team and business.
  • Leadership Mindset: Telling people what to do and how to do it.
  • Team Mindset: How do I keep the boss happy?
  • System-of-Roles: A single leader has final call on who plays what roles. Business and function leaders are designated who report to this leader.
  • Pathologies: A lack of bandwidth among top leaders. Teams typically work in silos and decision-making hierarchies are ineffective. The top leader works in the business, not on the business. Innovation is constrained, and complexity can't be effectively managed.
  • Milestone for Evolving to Next Stage: Create a complete system-of-roles and strategies.

Stage III: Complete-System-of-Roles

  • Key Characteristic: An interdependent system-of-roles consisting of all key roles for the enterprise.
  • Leadership Mindset: Delegating accountabilities and responsibilities.
  • Team Mindset: How do I win from the perspective of my role?
  • System-of-Roles: A defined system-of-roles based on workflow models.
  • Pathologies: Team members are still not working interdependently. Conflicts among roles and strategies arise, without clear protocols for how to resolve them.
  • Milestones for Evolving to Next Stage: Develop a high-performing team, working interdependently to: 1) learn effective mindsets; 2) resolve conflicts; 3) hold each other accountable for doing the right things and doing things right; and 4) support team member development.

Stage IV: High-Performing Team

  • Key Characteristic: Team members working interdependently and aligning within a complete system-of-roles.
  • Leadership Mindset: Strategically engaging team members.
  • Team Mindset: How can I contribute to making our vision for success real?
  • System-of-Roles: Leaders working interdependently within a complete system-of-roles.
  • Pathologies:  As pathologies and constraints to high performance and growth arise, they are identified and resolved.

  By understanding the current stage of development of your organization, you are able to isolate characteristic next steps to higher performance. The enormous value of this approach to leaders is that you can make precise, high-return investments in your team and in your organization that enable you perform at a much higher level and to deliver on your mission more effectively.

Do you know where your organization is on the Evolutionary Clock and what steps you need to take to move to the next stage? If not, try out our High-Performing Team App at no cost. This diagnostic tool will assess where your organization currently is, identify key issues you are likely dealing with, and provide an agenda for moving your organization to the next higher stage of development.

Related Resources

Translating The Formula For High-Performing Teams

Organizational Structure Change Is Required To Reach The Next Level

Organizational Development