The differences between an under performing team and a great team are obviously significant, but the differences between good teams and great teams are often less obvious. Understanding what makes a team great is just as important as understanding why teams under perform.

In my work, I see all kinds of teams. Some are in trouble and need immediate mitigation. Many are doing well but know that they could be doing even better. Then there are the select few who are hitting on all cylinders.

Here are the differences I see every day that differentiate great teams from good and poor teams:

1. Strategy, goals, and purpose

Under performing teams either don’t have a strategy or don’t have a group understanding of it.

Good teams may have a group understanding of the strategy but may not agree or be aligned around it. This means that everyone might not be working together all the time.

Great teams have a group understanding of the strategy but are also completely aligned around it. This means that everyone moves in the same direction and supports the strategy even if they don’t necessarily agree with it. Great teams understand the difference between agreement and alignment.

2. Right people with the right skills in the right roles

Under performing teams often don’t have the right skills they need to get the job done.

Good teams often have the right skills but may not have them in the right places to really drive the strategy.

Great teams have the right skills but also have them deployed in a way that best supports the strategy, and team members have great clarity on how they contribute to the strategy.

James Sudakow, Teams
‘Stranger Things’, NETFLIX

3. Conflict

Under performing teams either avoid conflict completely and allow it to fester under the surface, or they engage in conflict in a way that damages relationships.

Good teams can engage in conflict when they have to but don’t necessarily seek it out.

Great teams see conflict as a critical part of getting the best result and actively seek it out. They do it constructively without personalizing it and have a formal structure for it.

4. Decision-making

Under performing teams either are paralyzed by decision making or make them too quickly, which often leads to decisions being questioned after the fact or the derailing “hallway talk” that undermines any decision and direction.
Good teams make decisions but may rely on one decision making approach for all decisions, which may impact team buy-in or ownership of the decision and it’s implications.

Great teams have alignment around and know “how to decide” in a way that makes their decision-making process effective and efficient. They recognize that a one size fits all decision-making approach doesn’t work. Decisions require total alignment from the group, which keeps them from unnecessarily undoing, questioning, or re-making them.

5. Rules of the road

Under performing teams have no operating principles. There aren’t any agreed upon rules of engagement around process, behavior, and decision making. This results in highly inefficient and ineffective processes, and pervasive unacceptable behaviors.

Good teams may have an agreed upon set of operating principles about how they work together but may not spend time regularly talking about them and evaluating themselves on how they are doing living those operating principles.

Great teams not only have a clear understanding of how they work together, the behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable to the team, but they also make these “operating principles” front and center at their meetings on a regular basis. In other words, they don’t just come up with them and leave them on a shelf somewhere. They live them and constructively call each other out when they aren’t being followed.

6. Culture and values

Under performing teams may not invest time in developing a set of values that they agree upon which often allows unconstructive behaviors to permeate the team.

Good teams may have a set of values that they agree are important, but those values aren’t at the forefront and may degrade when times get tough.

Great teams keep their values in-tact even when things go wrong or are challenging and are constantly working to ensure that they focus on the “the how” as much as “the what.”

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