The Ultimate Recipe for Top-Performing Teams

I remember the first time I designed a workshop for a client who wanted to encourage his team after re-organization. The company was poised for a renaissance, he said. If only he could make the new team configuration gel. A few jobs had been eliminated, so people were touchy. Teams had to be reassembled. New alliances had to be built. These were very smart people. And in the best of times, they fed off each other.

I knew I had to get them out of their heads. But not so far out they’d flounder.

Where to begin?

A few years ago, when I was researching my second book, I uncovered the social conditions that make a renaissance flourish. By experimenting, I discovered it was possible to simulate those conditions in macro settings by focusing on four pillars:

  1. Enlighten
  2. Encourage creativity
  3. Engage cross-disciplinary players
  4. Sponsor the bread and circuses.

Let me walk you through the recipe.

 Assemble the Ingredients

To get people out of their heads and engaging with each other, we’ve organized a special wine and cheese tasting for the first evening. Weeks before hand, I put them into groups of four. Key ingredient: Each team is a mix of men and women.

Teams will research wines and cheeses to make selections for the whole group to try. One team has been assigned non-alcoholic and non-dairy alternatives, even though some of them are avid wine enthusiasts. As you can imagine, teams will self-organize a few “field trips” to their local wine bar to do some recognizance.

During the first evening of the retreat, rather than holding a non-actionable cocktail hour, the teams will educate us on the products they chose and why. I’ll stand back and enjoy the show.

3 critical steps for a delicious outcome

Teams are asked to:

  1. Take turns. Every one on your team must lead, as well as follow. No domineering.
  1. Clink glasses and make eye contact when you do. My German-American sweetheart took me to task once when I neglected the meaningful glances as we toasted each other. “If you don’t look your fellow toasters in the eye as you touch glasses, it means seven years bad luck,” he warned.
  1. Write a blurb about the wine and cheese your team chooses. “Nettley on the nose, herbaceous, with hints of basil and pear, and a flinty finish.” Writing anything as a group is a supreme challenge. Even the most baleful lone wolves will bond when problem-solving on a creative task. It forces the team to decide HOW it will tackle the task. There is no right way.

Why Some Teams Outperform Others

Diversity is more than an ideal—it’s a valuable catalyst. Consider this research about why some teams out perform others. Professors Christopher Chabris, Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone boil it down to three things:

  • Members contribute equally. They develop a lead-and-follow etiquette that makes greatest use of their diverse perspectives.
  • Teams get good at reading complex emotional states, visible only in people’s eyes.
  • The teams with more women outperform teams with more men. (Mainly because women are proven to be better at reading people’s moods through eye contact).

When we strive to communicate a future direction to people, there has to be some creative delight in it to inspire them. Because when there is an open field in front of people, you’ll want them to fill it with visions they’ll be excited to own.