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Successful Teams: Everyone Performs

By day I'm a DBA. Nights and weekends I'm a junior high youth pastor and Awana commander. I have the pleasure of working with children and youth from 3 years old through senior high on a regularly basis, with most of my focus being on the 6th-8th graders at our church. One of the things I like to see happen is when they work together as a team and accomplish something that didn't think they could do. Last night one group did just that, while another group did not.

The Smackdown

In order to generate some competition between two clubs in Awana, we have done head-to-head competitions where one club competes against another for sections completed. In our case, we put Sparks (K-2nd grade) versus Truth & Training (T&T for short, 3rd-6th grade). Last year, T&T did well and won the competitions easily. But Sparks did reasonably well, it excited the kids, and it motivated them to work hard. So this year we brought back the challenges. We had one in October and just did the one for November. October wasn't close. Sparks completed 89 sections as a group to T&T's 49, despite being outnumbered. Now, T&T is limited to 5 sections per person per night, and Sparks doesn't have that limitation, but we have a proviso that if T&T "maxes out" as a group, even if they get beat they still earn the prize. FIguring that T&T would want to avenge their loss, we gave everyone a heads-up and told them a couple of weeks out so they could prepare for tonight. Unfortunately, T&T didn't avenge their loss, but instead, lost again, this time by a margin of 78-39.

Inside the Numbers

Last time 6 T&Ters maxed out, for 30 of the 48 sections. There were 12 other T&Ters and they completed 18 sections bewteen them. If you do the math, you get 1.5 sections per T&Ter of this second crew. Had all 18 maxed out, they would have completed 90 sections, meaning a win. By contrast, there were 16 Sparkies, meaning they averaged almost 6 sections per child. And that was the difference.

This time around, both groups were down a couple of students. T&T had 16, and at least 3 maxed out. So that means there were 24 points between 13 clubbers for the remaining points. I think there was a 4th, but I wasn't able to verify. If that's true, then we would be looking at 19 points among 12 clubbers. That's a little better than last time, but not by much, with either way you figure out the remaining points after max-out clubbers are excluded. This time around, 3 Sparks clubbers completed 11 sections each. That meant 11 completed the other 45 sections. I know one clubber had a hectic week and was only able to complete 2 sections. However, so many came to perform that the one clubber was pulled up by the rest of the group. Any way you do the math, the Sparks clubbers other than the high performing crew average 4 sections per child.

Why Such a Big Disparity?

It's all about preparation. When I asked how many Sparks clubbers prepared at home, just about every hand went up. When I asked the same question of T&T, only the high performers popped hands up. As a team, the Sparks group had just about everyone performing. T&T, by contrast, had a few excellent performers, but the rest were far below the level of the rest. In the Sparks group, because everyone was performing well, they dominated the T&T club in both competitions.

The Whole Platoon Suffers

This goes back to my Citadel days. A "motivation" tactic that was often effective when dealing with a particular freshman that couldn't get his act together was to make the whole platoon suffer the consequences. For instance, if my shoes weren't shined to the exacting standards demanded, the first couple of times it would be just me feeling the wrath of the upperclassmen. But if I couldn't fix my shoes, and if no one else in the platoon helped me get them fixed, then the whole platoon would suffer the consequences. What we understood at The Citadel was that in a platoon, you couldn't afford to have anyone slack off. Think about the consequences in combat. While only about 1/3 of the Citadel's graduates go in the military, the role of The Citadel is to train South Carolina's next generation of citizen-soldiers. So we do look at things from a military perspective.

Not everything fits the lens of a military system. However, the idea that everyone on a team needs to perform is a valid one with plenty of research and empirical evidence to support it. Not everyone has to be a high performer, but just about everyone has to step up and do their part. This ensures that even when someone has a bad day or bad performance, the overall team has the potential to overcome that bad day/performance. This is especially true in competitions like what we had in Awana. Now compare the other situation. Though T&T had several high performers, they just weren't able to bring up the rest of the team enough. And while sometimes a great team effort may not be able to overcome a bad performance by a key person, it's almost always true that high performers cannot bring up the overall team to a satisfactory performance consistently if the rest of the team isn't performing.

I'm a High Performer, But...

the rest of the team isn't performing up to snuff. Now what? The key is to try and motivate and help the others perform at a higher level. In sports they always talk about special players making those around them better. As a high performer on a lackluster team, that's exactly what has to happen, whether we're talking sports or application development. And this is where mentoring comes in. This is where taking the time to find out what others are struggling with (and it may not be IT knowledge-related, so that means actually building relationships) is crucial. You can continue to improve yourself and yourself exclusively, and your team may taste some success due to your heroic efforts. But the implications aren't good:

  • If you have a bad day on the wrong day, your team fails.
  • If your team doesn't improve, your team will always depend on your heroics (think about how this impacts your personal time).
  • If there's another position in your organization you want, you likely won't be allowed to move because you are irreplaceable.
  • At some point you're likely to feel taken advantage of because there will be two sets of standards: what's expected of you and what's expected of everyone else.

The key is to try and raise the level of those around you. The better the team around you, the easier it becomes on you. Also, the better your team becomes, the more your team is able to accomplish. And as the team develops into a group of performers, likely more challenges and opportunties will be sent your team's way. Those are opportunities to grow and learn in your craft. And then there's the fact that you're surrounded by other performers. Being surrounded by other performers tends to raise our level, too. But that's for another blog post.


K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by Jason Brimhall on 4 November 2010

One can't be much of a team player if s/he doesn't try to help those in the team and is always setting him/herself apart as being better.

Posted by Chuck Rummel on 7 November 2010

Good reminder post.  Sometimes it's too easy to get caught up in the day to day stuff, too easy to forget that the more time we work on getting other team members advancing can turn into a virtuous cycle, allowing them to take on more which then frees yourself up to do the same.  It may seem counterintuitive.  But contrast that with the vicious cycle where there's one "go to" person who then gets overloaded and then doesn't have time for others either to train, delegate, or otherwise help improve them, which then only makes things worse for everyone.

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