Cultivating Peak Performance: The Art and Science of Team Building

Cultivating Peak Performance: The Art and Science of Team Building

By Carla Perrotta

A recent article in Fast Company magazine contained a moving tribute to the healthcare professionals who worked at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

The hospital boasts some amazing statistics," the profile said. "In 2001, it delivered 16,597 babies." Not only is that more babies than any other maternity ward in America, it's also more babies born in one Dallas hospital than were born in 10 states as well as in the District of Columbia," the article said.

More impressive than the raw numbers is the quality: Parkland beats the national average for neonatal death rates. For African-American babies, its death rate is half the national average. Its rate of stillbirths is lower than the national average, as is its rate of very-low-birth-weight babies and its C-sections. This impressive performance becomes astonishing when you consider that 95 percent of the women who deliver at Parkland are indigent.

What struck me about the story is the absolute focus on the patient-- Parkland achieves these impressive results one patient at a time with a team of committed and caring individuals. While there are rigid protocols and an intricate layering of responsibilities, everyone is willing to pitch in to do whatever is necessary for the patient. In some cases, that means doctors can be found mopping out delivery rooms to make room for the next patient.

Many hospitals and healthcare institutions have adopted teams as a way to increase productivity and results, although few with the success of Parkland. To achieve those results, teams must function as more than a collection of people. Rather, a team is better understood as two or more people who must coordinate their activities to accomplish a common goal. A smoothly functioning and disciplined team allows individuals to achieve results far beyond their own ability, while at the same time keeping them humble. When the needs of the group come first, individual member needs are met better than when they were putting themselves first.

Among the benefits of effective teams:

  • Improved work methods, procedures and decision-making
  • Increased motivation and contribution
  • Increased attraction and retention of higher-quality employees
  • Better coordination of activities and functions
  • Enhanced service and product quality and quantity
  • Reduced staff support and supervision
  • More creativity and innovation

The trouble is that despite their ubiquity, teams rarely achieve breakthrough results. Too often they sink to the level of the weakest performer and keep digging. The fault lies not with the team or its members, but with those that took a group of individuals, charged them with improbable goals, staffed them with uninspired leadership and expected them to function as a team. Such efforts underscore the potential downsides of teams:

  • Rising training costs and salaries
  • Resistance and lack of support from others in the organization
  • Unmet expectations for organizational change
  • Unmet expectations for personal growth and development
  • Conflict between participants and non-participants
  • Perception: Time is lost in team meetings

High-performance teams do not result from spontaneous combustion. They are grown, nurtured and exercised. It takes a lot of hard work and skill to blend the different personalities, abilities, and agendas into a cohesive unit willing to work for a common goal. Following are some attributes of effective teams:

  • Determine a compelling and worthwhile purpose. What's the large, desired outcome? What needs to be improved? Eliminated? Changed? A vision, properly articulated, will be the engine that drives and inspires a team. It will determine who should be on the team, what resources are needed, how quickly a conclusion must be reached, what falls within the scope of the team and how success will be measured and rewarded.
  • Attract the right people. Once a mission is defined, team members must be recruited. The more they are willing to commit to the vision with missionary-like zeal, the greater the chances of success. Strong teams include members who represent a wide range of backgrounds, skills and abilities, as well as a wide mix of cultural and professional viewpoints. Such diversity should give life to ideas and opinions that might not otherwise have been aired. Think of a symphony. No matter how talented your cellist, you wouldn't want an orchestra made up entirely of cellos. Beautiful music is the result of a diverse blend of instruments working together.
  • Agree upon values. Not only must team members embrace the mission, they must share your values. Effective teams demand close collaboration, trust, honesty, passion, and genuine appreciation for each member's contributions.
  • Develop common goals. Winning teams thrive in an environment where they can unite behind a common and compelling purpose, a cause everyone can understand, identify with, and commit to. Ideally, these goals should be developed by the team members, as this tends to create ownership, buy-in and commitment.
  • Set ground rules. Team members should understand why the team exists and know the roles each member plays. They need to know how decisions will be made, how to deal with conflict, how to communicate, and how results will be measured. The success of the team depends upon creating an environment in which team members openly contribute ideas while recognizing and respecting the differences in others. Above all, they need to understand how long their commitment will last.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. If a statement of purpose is the engine that drives the team, communication is the oil that keeps the engine well-lubricated. Fail to lubricate the engine and it will lock up. So, too, will the team fail without effective communication.

Carla Perotta has 22 years in the healthcare staffing industry and is now responsible for all business operations related to Kelly Healthcare Resources, a business unit of staffing provider Kelly Services Inc., based in Troy, Michigan. Kelly Healthcare Resources provides healthcare staffing solutions to hospitals, clinics, businesses, healthcare facilities, insurance companies, HMO's and clinical research organizations. For more information, visit www.kellyhealthcare.com.

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