To Improve Team Performance: Diagnose the Problem Before Prescribing a Solution

First identify the source of the underperformance. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself spending tons of money paying for generic team training that isn’t going to fix your specific problem.
SEP 05, 2018
Alex Vincent, Ph.D.

The CIO wanted his team fixed and wasn’t particularly worried how I did it.

The team in question was a collection of his best and brightest. Expectations were very high. But the team had underachieved in spectacular fashion from its inception. And now, it had reached a tipping point where the team was going to be disbanded if their performance did not improve.

I listened to the CIO intently as he described missed deadlines and financial benchmarks. I took notes as he described the friction that had erupted between team members. I nodded as he talked about the profound disappointment that was building over the team’s growing list of failures.

He wanted a full-on intervention. Do whatever it takes, he told me. For the sake of the company, and his own peace of mind, the CIO needed this team to live up to its original expectations.

Before we could find a solution, however, we had to address another pressing issue: the CIO did not know exactly why the team was underperforming.

Was it a question of leadership? Was the team unclear about its mission or the expectations? You can’t fix a team by applying some sort of generic team-dynamic Band-Aid; teams are complex entities and there is no one-size-fits-all cure.

I told the CIO I preferred to do a detailed diagnostic of the team in question before prescribing an intervention. In my experience, it’s very hard to fix something if you don’t know the exact problem you’re confronting.

At first, he was reluctant, preferring instead to have me throw everything—including the kitchen sink—at the problem. But I insisted, and when it was all said and done, it was a good thing I did.

As I drilled down into this team’s dynamics, I found that much of what the CIO had told me was true: this was a group of very talented individuals. Each of them had a track record of success before they were pulled together. And the leader was solid. Leaders can always be better, but he understood his role and expectations, and he was sending his team all the right signals. 

So I drilled a little deeper by doing a detailed interview with every team member.

What emerged was a picture of a group of talented individuals that was struggling to get along with one particular team member. On his own, this man was a proven winner. As part of this team, however, he was a toxic distraction who sucked the life out of the group.

I went back to the CIO and strongly recommended that he not employ any intensive team training. Instead, I recommended that he address the one team member, which he did. And wouldn’t you know it, within a few months, the previously underachieving team was hitting all its marks.

This anecdote is a strong reminder of two inescapable realities about the team dynamic. First, truly great teams do not have weak links. And second, you only know if a team has a weak link by doing a full diagnostic before unleashing any team intervention.

In today’s business environment, the margin between “just okay” and “top notch” is extremely tight. Competition is fierce, and no thriving business can afford to waste months waiting for a team working under great expectations to figure out a way to get along. 

You can certainly upskill underperformers. Effective group dynamics and accountability are not second nature for everyone. Sometimes, even good teams can benefit from basic training to become great teams, as long as everyone is willing to work together to be better.

But in those instances where potentially good teams are being held back by one or two weak performers, and there is no common vision, the solution is clear: remove the weak links and replace them with people who excel in a team environment. 

However, the key lesson in the story I told above is that you should never guess at the reasons why a team isn’t performing. You need to first identify the source of the underperformance. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself spending tons of money paying for generic team training that isn’t going to fix your specific problem.

A diagnostic is not necessarily an industry best practice. There are many firms offering team solutions that will just go straight into training with the hope that the process will reveal the specific problems and solve the issues. That is not going to produce the best results.

A comprehensive diagnostic will reveal the level at which every member of the team is performing. Are the team members really lacking, are they average, or are they described as high-performing?

And then there is the issue of leadership. Team leaders must be strong, not only as individuals but also as the people who set an example for accountable team dynamics. In our experience, if you have a very strong leader but a mediocre team, you still have a chance of making dramatic improvements in overall performance.

If your leader is weak, however, there is very little you can do apart from replacing that individual and trying to get the team back on a positive track.

In those instances where you’re dealing with weak leadership AND weak team members, you may find that it’s futile to spend time and money on remedial training. It will most likely require a lot of time and resources for little improvement. 

It’s one of the reasons why we discourage organizations from utilizing our flagship team intervention solution–The Leadership Contract for Teams–in those instances where a team is truly dysfunctional. Despite what many consultants will tell you, it’s simply not cost-effective to try and fix a truly awful team. You need to disband, start your search over again, and find a new group with new leadership and, we all hope, a common vision for the mandate at hand.

More importantly, no matter what specific team training you are considering, a diagnostic must precede the deployment of a solution. 

And although we do a diagnostic anytime we’re called in to help a team, it is not necessarily a precursor to the deployment of an intervention. There are some instances where the diagnostic reveals a simple fix—like the removal of a weak link—that eliminates the need for a more intensive intervention.

An intervention without a diagnostic is like operating without having performed a CT scan. It’s an approach that will likely fail.