Corporate Culture

Practical insights into building a gold-medal team

Australia recently beat the USA men’s basketball team for the first time in 55 years. It’s not the first time an unheralded team has beaten the best in the world.

At the 2004 Olympics, the US basketball team ended up with a bronze medal after losses to Argentina, Lithuania, and Puerto Rico. How could a team comprised entirely of NBA All-Stars – the best players in the world – lose against teams comprised of players playing in lower-quality local leagues?

The answer is that the star of the team is the team itself.

While our culture regularly lauds individual ability, there’s a growing understanding that high-performing teams – and the culture that fosters them – are the true key to success.

The benefits of focusing on team performance are also apparent in surprising areas. A famous study known as the marshmallow problem challenged teams of four to build the tallest free-standing structure using 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of transparent tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow (which must be on top of the structure).

Teams of kindergarteners consistently outperformed teams of CEOs, lawyers and business school graduates (the best performing teams were architects and engineers), revealing much about the interplay between individual skills and the nature of collaboration.

But while fostering high-performing teams is crucial, measuring team performance within organisations remains extremely difficult.

New study identifies high-performing team attributes

Australian enterprise software company Atlassian recently surveyed 1100 people across team types to help identify the factors behind high-performing teams. Understanding team performance is crucial to the Nasdaq-listed firm, which recently passed $US1 billion in annual revenue, because its core purpose is to help organisations embrace agile ways of working.

The Atlassian study found high-performing teams exhibited 16 key team attributes, which had a 52% ability to predict strong team performance (a high level in the social sciences).

For example, it found 66% of high-performing teams understand why their work matters compared to just 25% of low-achieving teams. Similarly, 72% of high-performing teams exhibit mutual respect and trust among teammates compared to just 29% of low-achieving teams.

Employee engagement surveys are widespread but often take a top down view: organisational health, different functions within departments, and then how the team is doing.

However, Atlassian Head of Performance Development, Jamie McCollough, said its study suggested this wasn’t an effective way to capture the elements that set up teams for success. For example, the early results suggest high performance is not related to a team’s size or its specific job function.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the people team or you’re in the engineering team. It matters what specific unit of work and team you are on, which is awesome because what it means is it’s up to the team to determine whether or not they’re going to be feeling engaged and probably also better performing,” she said during a session at the HubSpot GROW 2019 conference.

Atlassian is currently further testing its study results to validate and refine its model for high-performing teams.

“We’re focused on R&D teams right now that have a lot of specific outcome measures that we can pull in from our own products, for example. We’re starting to look at when trust is high, can we prove that actual performance improves?”

How to improve team performance

With a clearer understanding about some of the elements that make high-performing teams, the next step is to ask team members how they rate themselves against those factors.

Atlassian’s free Health Monitor tool is one tool that can help teams identify strengths to focus on and weaknesses to overcome.

McCollough used the example of a team that recently ran the Health Monitor, revealing that it didn’t have a ‘shared understanding of goals and relevant metrics’. The next step was to implement some new ways of working suggested by the Atlassian Team Playbook.

In this case, they came up with an ‘elevator pitch’ – a quick shared statement about what the team was trying to achieve.

“It’s often the team lead who will say ‘everybody knows what we’re doing’… well, maybe ask,” McCollough said.

The Health Monitor also found the team didn’t have a ‘shared understanding and ‘shared understanding and clarity of operating norms’. They implemented a ‘retro’ play, setting aside time to reflect on what’s going well and what is not to team meetings and a ‘demo’ play, where everybody has an opportunity to share the work that they’re doing on a regular basis to break down silos.

McCollough recommends fast-paced change teams perform the health monitor at least once a month. However, she also says making the time to monitor and change team performance is one of the hardest challenges for many organisations which are already under time constraints.

“Start small, start on your team and find a way to track it,” she says. “So, if you, for example, bring in a health monitor and you uncover two things that are really kind of low, put a plan in place, come back to the health monitor again, and see if it’s improved. Look at the goals that you’re trying to achieve. Are you seeing any difference in the progress that you’re making? Find a way to tie it back to the things that your leaders care about.

It’s the type of iterative approach that characterises the agile approach at Atlassian, which focuses on continuous improvement over major step changes.

What it means for directors and executives

Many of the attributes that foster high-performing teams, such as having a shared understanding of operating norms and trust – are also important to building a strong organisational culture.

The recent Royal Commission into financial services misconduct has put culture in the spotlight, recommending all financial services entities assess the entity’s culture and its governance, identify any problems with that culture and governance, deal with those problems, and determine whether the changes have been effective.

The self-assessments undertaken by 36 financial institutions at the direction of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) have already resulted in additional capital requirements being imposed on several companies until their remediation is complete.

Culture is directly associated with conduct and, as the APRA self-assessment process demonstrates, affects the strength – or weakness – of an organisation’s risk management frameworks. At its best, it can support superior performance, but the reverse is also true. The price of poor team culture can be measured in lost opportunities, dissatisfied customers, high employee turnover and untold reputational damage.

Directors and executives need to play ball when it comes to recognising their critical responsibilities for organisational culture or risk being slam-dunked.

Diligent specialises in supporting effective teamwork at the highest level of organisations. Our approach to modern governance helps directors, executives and governance professionals perform at their best. To find out more, contact us at or request a demonstration

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