We need to move beyond ‘High Performing Teams’

I need to start by apologizing. For many years I have written about the importance of high performing teams, created models of them and written and taught about how to lead, coach, and develop them (Hawkins 2011, 2014, 2017, 2018). Over the last two years I have woken up to how, like nearly all writers about teams and team coaching, I was caught in what is an out-dated paradigm. I now believe that the term is not only beyond its sell by date but is problematic and leading team development and team coaching in the wrong direction.

There are four ways that I see that the term causes problems.

A mechanistic rather than a living organism metaphor

High performing teams is a concept that grew out of 20th century mechanistic linear thinking. High performance was a term used for manufacturing machinery, or cars that could accelerate fast from stand still to 60mph. It was about achieving greater productivity and efficiency out of a fixed system, so that it creates more, faster, and cheaper. High performance is unconcerned about whether what is produced is of beneficial value. It is focussed on efficiency rather than creating benefit for all stakeholders.


Some teams I have worked with over the years have been motivated to be the ‘best team on the block’, the standout region in their company. When they have succeeded they have often done this at the cost of other parts of the organisation and not through creating benefit for the whole organisation and all its stakeholders Their achievement has been built on by being the most successful at gleaning joint resources, such as marketing, HR, sales support; and the least willing to share knowledge and to second staff when other teams and regions were struggling. The team member’s loyalty has been to their local team. not the rest of the organisation.                                                                                         

A Place of arrival and a tick-box exercise.

For some teams, becoming a high performing team is the next thing on their development agenda. Last year it was becoming a ‘Lean organisation’, the year before decentralization and empowerment. They ask me: “What are the top things we need to do to be a high performing team?” They want help with creating a check list, that they can tick off, step by step. Often team leaders request a clear timetabled plan and ‘Gant chart’ including a date and place of arrival. But team development is not a pre-planned journey you can buy off the shelf. Being a successful team is never a place of arrival. As Bill Gates wrote: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” A team that thinks it is now ‘A High Performing team’ often slips into complacency and arrogance. Successful teams and organizations are often the last to notice the world is changing around them.

Claiming the success as your own

Let me tell you an imaginary story, that could come true in the very near future.

It is a future gathering of the top team at ZoomThey have just received the annual performance figures for the organization and are celebrating a record year. Revenue, profits, and reputation have all risen sharply. In the midst of the champagne toasts, and congratulations echoing around the room, one team member says, “I think we should pause and thank the team member who made the biggest contribution to our record success. A team member who only joined us this year.” She is greeted by blank and questioning faces. The CEO eventually says: “Who are you talking about? The reply comes: “Corona Virus.” There is a stunned and awkward silence

All evolution is co-evolution all development is co-development and all success is co-created.

The success is co-created between a team and its wider organization, between the organization and its business eco-system, between a species and ecological niche. All evolution is co-evolution – a species and the niche co-adapt and respond to each other – so does a team and its context.

 High Value creating teams

To move from an outdated mechanistic concept of teams, we need to find concepts and models rooted in systemic and organismic ways of seeing the world; approaches built on collaboration and co-adaptability, rather than competition and sub-optimisation of parts of the larger system. We need team development that is part of creating a wider ‘team of teams’ as Genera McCrystal discovered while leading the Allied forces to try and create sustainable peace in post war Iraq and finding they were constantly out manoeuvred (McCrystal et al 2015).

We need to support and coach teams that can ‘continuously co-create beneficial value with and for all their stakeholders’, both human, and the ‘more-than-human’ stakeholders of the wider ecological environment, which is always the largest contributor to all human success.

What is beneficial value? That which improves quality of life, diversity, well-being, and sustainability, at all the nested systemic levels that our life is living and breathing within.

I again apologise for taking so long to move away from writing about high performing teams and promise my next books will be about the practical ways we can create and sustain high value creating teams.


Hawkins, P. (2011, & 2014 & 2017) Leadership Team Coaching: Developing Collective Transformational Leadership. London: Kogan Page.

Hawkins, P. (2014 and 2018). Leadership Team Coaching in Practice; Developing High Performing Teams. Philadelphia: Kogan Page Publishers.

McChrystal, S., Collins, T., Silverman, D. and Fussell, C. (2015). Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. New York: Penguin. 

Professor Peter Hawkins June 2020

Peter Hawkins will be running the next face to face Systemic Team Coaching certificate December 15th -17th in London. Meanwhile AoEC have places left on the Systemic Team Coaching taught by Peter’s colleagues as a 3 day virtual replacement program from 21-23 July 2020 – for full details for both trainings and to book a place, click here.

The Global Team Coaching Institute led by Peter Hawkins and David Clutterbuck, is about to launch the second level Practitioner program starting in October. Peter will be leading the Systemic Team Coaching course with a global faculty of his most senior colleagues. For full details contact Kirsten@wbecs.com

My next Blog I will publish next weekend 12th July on “We are all in this together: Coronavirus, Climate Emergency, Collaboration and Consciousness Change.”

There are more blogs and other free resources on https://www.renewalassociates.co.uk