When we plotted the results, we found that only 13 percent of the teams demonstrated superior ability to accelerate (all four stakeholder groups rated the team above the threshold). Some 29 percent showed some ability to accelerate (three groups rated the team above it). Of the remaining teams, 31 percent were described as coasting, 19 percent as lagging, and 8 percent as derailing (none of the stakeholder groups rated the team above the performance threshold). Of the 16 factors we studied, we found the widest differences between the highest and lowest performers in five areas. Here, we discuss those differences and make suggestions to close the gap:
1. The team is willing to fail fast. Accelerating teams try new ideas and emphasize speed over perfection. They embrace risk, but mitigate it by finding out quickly what works and what doesn’t. Poorer-performing teams are slow to adapt and tend to avoid risk, sacrificing innovation for safety
Some remedies: When confronting a difficult decision, teams should conduct a premortem about what could go wrong and why. Teams should also formalize the sharing of what they learned from mistakes so it becomes collective knowledge, enabling faster action. Teams can also borrow from the principles of agile software development, which embraces iterative methods of development, constant collaboration, and incremental improvements.
2. The team absorbs and implements new learning.Accelerating teams seek ideas from multiple sources and prioritize active learning. They not only push the boundaries of what they know but also establish a rhythm of adapting and applying what they learn. Poorer-performing teams may seek evidence to support a specific initiative, but fail to apply the knowledge to their day-to-day operations.
In response, teams can establish regular rituals like workshops, seminars, or after-action reviews to tease out what participants wish they had known before any given project was initiated, thus enabling them move ahead more quickly next time. Accelerating teams also encourage members to bring forward “half-baked” ideas, with the assurance that the resulting discussion will be in the spirit of exploration.
3. The team’s members rigorously challenge each other. Accelerating teams engage in high-quality debate and exchange frank, supportive feedback. Poorer-performing teams are often mired in groupthink or a culture of consensus, or they meekly take cues from a domineering leader.
To counter tendencies toward artificial harmony or unchallengeable leadership, teams can institutionalize dissent by creating a devil’s advocate role that rotates among members. Similarly, an independent “red team,” as the U.S. intelligence community calls it, can be established to act as a surrogate enemy and challenge unexamined assumptions.
4. The team is willing to rethink assumptions. Accelerating teams systematically track what is going on outside and inside their organization and field to incubate and test new ideas. Further, they constantly look for and challenge biases in framing and gathering intelligence that reinforce the status quo. Poorer-performing teams are internally focused, concentrate on their own processes, and are often caught by surprise by events and their consequences.
Teams should consider structured techniques like scenario planning and war gaming. No matter how seemingly invulnerable a company, a systematic study of startups inside — and outside — the team’s industry should be undertaken periodically.