Accelerating High Team Performance – The Pressure Cooker Approach.

High performance teams are fundamentally different from most teams. Most teams pursue modest goals and interact in a completely different way than high performance teams. In today’s landscape where 60% of major infrastructure projects fail (Deloitte Access Economics Report, 2014[1]), mediocrity clearly doesn’t cut it.

So how do we accelerate high performance? In a previous article, 7 secrets to a successful business partnership, I referred to developing trust as a key ingredient. I also promised to expand on the ‘Pressure Cooker’ (PC) approach to accelerate trust and performance in teams.

So what is the ‘Pressure Cooker’ (PC) approach? It is a facilitation method where the team works together intensively and is put under pressure to apply positive techniques and accelerate team functionality by dealing with real challenges and opportunities.

The Pressure Cooker approach has been used in the Netherlands Military[2] in a game situation, but our approach is more holistic, favouring real organisation/project and team challenges to build team effectiveness and performance, and addressing both the ‘structural’ and ‘humanistic’ elements to enable success.

I’ve seen the PC work particularly well for bid teams and newly established partnerships (think JVs, alliances etc). I’ve also seen it applied successfully for cross-functional teams and even where an old team wants to achieve a shake up, renewed trust or a higher level of performance.

From my experience, high performance teams (HPTs) have 5 foundations in common. Below I have looked at each foundation of a HPT and presented how the PC approach and associated activities are designed to achieve these foundations.

(1) HPTs really know, and trust, each other.

Our PC approach accelerates team performance by:

  • Getting to know each other: Knowing each other at a personal level helps support emotional and physical well-being above each individual’s desire to play to win. Spending time to understand each others strengths and weaknesses, learn what brings out the individuals’ best and worst, sharing vulnerabilities, understanding significant life events that made the person whom they are, as well as understanding organisation cultures, work methods and terminology etc are all targeted initiatives to accelerate understanding and appreciation of each other and gain access to knowledge about the core capabilities of their team.
  • Committing to and upholding Behavioural Standards: The first step is to get the leadership team to understand that behavioural results always precede performance results. Developing, buying-in to and modeling the agreed Behavioural Standards is a key ingredient. In projects/organisations I’ve supported, we’ve often mapped the engagement survey results (behavioural indicators) with the actual business performance. There was consistently a clear correlation with the behaviours (lead indicators) to the performance results (lag indicators).
  • Identifying and adopting new behaviours: Purposefully designing real problem solving in a pressured environment gets people to ‘revert to type’. The team continually assesses against the agreed Behavioural Standards and identifies what behaviours need to stop and what new behaviours need to be adopted for higher individual and team performance.

 (2) HPTs know and communicate what success looks like.

Our PC approach accelerates team performance by focusing on the ‘structural’ elements required for success. These include establishing the project fundamentals, vision, scorecard, strategic initiatives, meeting and communication regimes, horizon planning, monitoring & review etc. These are some of the real challenges that the team works though together.

(3) HPTs work across boundaries.

In any project or organisation with silos, you ask the Leadership Team “Which is your ‘first’ team?”, all of them will say their vertical team (i.e. the functional/ discipline/ project team). In a high performance Leadership Team, the genuine answer is the horizontal team (i.e. the Leadership Team). In a Centre for Creative Leadership Study on Boundary Spanning Leadership[3] 86% of the senior executives interviewed believe it is “extremely important” for them to work effectively across boundaries in their current leadership role. Yet worryingly, only 7% of these executives believe they are currently “very effective” at doing so. When working with Leadership Teams, our PC approach focuses on the horizontal team to develop deep understanding and knowledge so that each member can anticipate each other’s needs, back one another up, collectively work across boundaries and get the team to be vested in the overall success. To truly be a cohesive and high performing leadership team, each individual must join forces and own and lead each other’s initiatives – this contributes to a highly trusting, collaborative and innovative environment. When working with non-leadership teams, our PC approach focuses on working effectively across the relevant boundaries e.g. horizontal (e.g. function or expertise), geographic, stakeholder etc.

(4) HPTs deliberately apply multiple mindsets to any opportunity or problem.

Our PC approach purposefully leverages the team’s diversity (age, gender, race, experience, functional strengths, thinking or personality styles), which can have profound effect on problem solving. Mediocre and forming teams discourage differences and team members feel pressure to ‘fit in’. Once the benefits of leveraging differences are truly experienced in the PC, leadership teams often emulate multiple mindsets (or cross-functional teams) for particular problems and strategic initiatives at other levels of the organisation or project.

(5) HPTs actively manage conflict and dysfunction.

Getting along nicely leads to mediocre performance. Yes mediocrity is better than failure, but hardly high performance. Through our PC approach, teams are energized by each other and have direct, robust and respectful dialogue (but not always comfortable conversations), they have lively meetings, many ideas, healthy debates, quick problem solving, and minimal politics. For these teams, respecting each other is pushing higher performance by insisting on high standards, speaking up about concerns, challenging and building on each other’s ideas. One of the new behaviours which are often learned is that the team will genuinely choose and buy-into a solution based on merit, not on team consensus, a dominant personality or group think. Team performance is the ultimate consideration and foundation that allows issues to be called out and dealt with constructively and promptly, all within a high trust team environment.

A word of warning, the facilitation and sequencing of the PC process and activities can either have a positive or a detrimental effect on the developing teams skills, behaviours and attitudes, so no one facilitation approach can be applied to all teams. It is important when designing the process for your team you consider which facilitator you should use to elicit the best result.

These five insights, coupled with the Pressure Cooker approach and active coaching, lead to accelerated and increased individual and team confidence, a high level of trust and help lay the foundations for successfully handling the inevitable pressure of performance. At STS we are passionate about helping leadership teams maximize their impact by improving their functioning, so if you have any questions regarding the concepts presented, please feel free to contact me via email.


Post written by Kristy Fairbairn, Project Manager, STS Consulting Australia