What good is a high-performance team in a vacuum, and how long will one last without an environment in which it can thrive?

This is the question that comes to mind when I’m asked to comment on the role of leadership in high-performance teams. Teams may be able to achieve various states of high performance for a time, or from time to time, perhaps experienced by the team as being “in the zone.” But my thoughts turn toward questions of causing teams to be in the zone on demand, and of sustaining a state of high performance.

Three Simple Words…

Be. Do. Have. These three words outline what I’ve learned in life, and they work as a sequence to achieving sustained success. Ironically, in most cultures I’ve encountered, the success sequence is often performed backward, and doing it backward isn’t successful. In fact, instead of success, the reversed sequence leads to a state of sustained unfulfillment. Too often, people operate in a “have-do-be” sequence. For example, “Were I to have money, I would do what people with money do, then I could be what people with money are” (rich). As a result, following this sequence leaves people perpetually unfulfilled because how much “have” do you need before you can start “doing,” and how much “doing” is needed before you can declare yourself to “be rich”? Typically, starting with the “have” leads to never getting to the “be.”

You can put anything in place of “money” (try “happiness”) and see people running their lives and companies using this never-successful-but-always-alluring operating model (i.e., have what happy people have before you can be happy). Put another way, this is basically the “get something before you can be something” model.

We’re inculcated in this approach practically from birth. It starts in most schools and sounds something like this: you’re not considered smart unless you prove it with grades. (“Have good grades, be considered smart.”) Then we mature to: you’re not qualified until you graduate; then that’s not enough, and it becomes: you’re not qualified until you’re certified; and then: you’re not qualified until you’ve done it before. It never ends …

Have-do-be is a self-defeating and demoralizing Catch-22 of an approach that almost no one questions. To question it is even cause for being ostracized as an eccentric anticapitalist nonconformist. Meanwhile, we contradict ourselves by telling our young people, subordinates, and peers that they’re to take risks, try new things, have confidence, “put yourself out there.” The latter prescriptions are the exact opposites of the “you’re not qualified until…” cycle. Who’s crazy now?

To be clear, I’m not dismissing the value of doing what it takes to get grades, education, certification, and experience, but all too often these are relied upon as poor proxies for the more important and harder-to-pinpoint attributes that make people and teams perform at a high level. These are attributes such as initiative, interpersonal and communication skills, empathy, reasoning, confidence, and analytical skills — as applied in the real world, not in the classroom, not on a certification exam, and not in the antiseptic environments of many regimented workplaces.

In the Right Order

I’ve found the inverse of the above — that is, “be-do-have” — to be a far more effective model. Let’s use it with happiness this time: “Were I to be happy, I would do what happy people do, then I could have what happy people have.” Or, in the case of our careers, employees, and teams, it would be less about “qualifications” and more about how people conduct themselves, what’s important to them, and how they work with others. In other words, to be a high-performance team, people would conduct themselves in the ways in which members of high-performance teams behave. They’d be effective communicators; they’d be autonomous; they’d be good team players. The problem, however, is obvious: telling people to “just be a high-performance team” or “just get it done” isn’t realistic either. People in the workplace need the foundations that only leaders can provide.

Too many organizations and consultants are operating backward, starting with the “do” instead of the “be.” And in order to start with the “be,” as in, “be a high-performance team,” we must start with what that takes. Hint: It’s not in the practices of what higher performance teams do; it’s in everything that makes it possible to be high performance. That is where leadership, coaching, mentoring, and team building come in.


Hillel Glazer

Hillel Glazer, a Senior Consultant with Cutter's Agile Product & Project Management practice, is recognized as the world's leading authority on introducing lean and agile concepts into the regulated world. In particular, he's the "AgileCMMI guy."


  5 Responses to “Creating High-Performance Teams: Three Simple Words”

  1. avatar

    Mr. Glazer,

    This is an outstanding article and great insight. In a way, you also point out the differences between management and leadership. Both are needed but I believe leadership guides first, then management, well, manages toward outcomes. Perhaps “Just Do It” isn’t such a bad slogan as long as it is preceeded by being engaged and followed by a recognition of accomplishment. I create experiences in my life that make me happy and let the results speak for themselves. But this is contrary to the “dog eat dog” competition method… Well, there I go with my eccentric anticapitalist nonconformist behavior. Thanks for writing this, very refreshing. Terry

  2. I also believe that this is a good thought provoking article. In fact I have also found the Be-Do-Have relationship to be important in life. However, I see this differently than you and I have found that Have is the Best place to start. However, I pose my questions differently than you do.

    Here is my thought process. What do I HAVE that can be put to use? How many different things can I DO with this? For each of those, what will I BECOME if I am successful? So, if I have a college degree and I go out and get a professional job I will increase my wealth more than if I do not properly use that asset. If I have access to two friends who can program, what can we do together and, if we are successful, what will our lives be like in the future. If I own a business and I have 3 employees, what is the best thing for them to do to improve the state of the business and what will we become as a result?

    My thought process is to look at your assets, put them to use, and change your situation.

    Starting from BE is much harder for me. What am I? I am a programmer. What do programmers do? We write programs. What will I have if I do this? A salary. Which still works. But to get significant improvement you have to be very, very clear on what you ARE. I’m not a programmer. I am an intelligent creative person who loves to build models of real world processes and then implement them. When I look at it that way I have more things I can do and so I can have bigger results. But it is much harder for me to visualize who or what I am than it is to inventory what I have as assets.

    Thanks for starting my day off with some thought provoking material.

  3. [...] been pretty busy.) However, I just read a blog article about the importance of Be-Do-Have in life (http://blog.cutter.com/2013/08/27/creating-high-performance-teams-three-simple-words/). Be-Do-Have is at the core of the Organization Ontology and at the core of my [...]

  4. Have you read this? http://www.lean.org/shook/displayobject.cfm?o=1166

    I’ve recently been thinking of applying the Crucial Conversations approach to this, as in asking:

    1. What do you really want?
    2. What does your behaviour communicate that you want?
    3. What should your behaviour be to communicate what you really want?

  5. This is nutz.

    For example, you can’t be an [anything that requires credentials] without the time and money to *become*.

    All of life is built on Maslow’s first tier right?

    So essentially material requirements preceed everything.

    Case in point… if you are starving… you need to “get some food” fast… Not “be unhungry”…

    “Desire is the root of all pain” only goes so far.

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