Bootstrapping the High Performance Team  

The differences between traditional and high-performance teams (HPTs) are immense.  These differences represent a 180-degree change in culture and belief sets.  Once people have experienced working on a high performance team, they will go to incredible lengths to recreate that situation for themselves.  Many experience it as the difference between joy and misery.

Basically the differences are as follows:


Traditional Team


High Performance Team

The boss rules

The best idea wins

The rules are golden

The rules are suspect

Leadership is learned

Leadership is recognized

Conventional Wisdom

Accelerating learning






Creative chaos



“yes” people

“why” people

Do as you’re told

Do what you believe

Say what you think they want to hear

Speak your truth






The biggest issue for most leaders is “how do I go about affecting a 180-degree change within my traditional team?”  Now that we’ve worked with a large number of teams to create these changes, it’s time to take a crack at the answer.

The Bootstrapping Sequence 

Every high performance team gets there through a painful process. This process is different every time, but at the meta level, it looks the same.  The phases are as follows:            

Phase 1: Chaos/Confusion/Pain

There is no team, only a vague task.  Leadership is in title only.  Ideas are almost completely ignored.  Everyone wishes someone else would change something.  Pointless, procedural conflicts ensue.  Team disintegration seems imminent, but remains unspoken.  Any decisions made do not stick and aren’t understood.

Phase 2:  Meta-Discussion

Someone recognizes the “stuckness” and rising frustration of the team.  This person, or group of people, speaks to their own feelings.  Suggestions are made for a way out of the dilemma.  Usually, these suggestions center around deciding on how to decide.  This begins the team’s bootstrapping of its work.

Phase 3: Listening

In order to successfully negotiate these first decisions and have them stick, the team explicitly addresses it’s own level of ability to listen to its constituents.  Protocols are developed and refined for clarifying decision making points, encouraging exploration of differences of opinion, checking for degree of buy-in, and evening the extrovert/introvert playing field.

Phase 4: Vulnerable Leadership

Someone takes a chance and trusts the group with a “difficult” feeling state.  This is usually an expression of passion about the importance of the project to this individual, and the frustration that they are feeling. 

Phase 5: Team Definition

The team decides to make progress together.  A commitment is made to developing a clear agreement on purpose.

Phase 6: Alignment

Either separately or together, the individuals come to terms with their own goals for the project.  They begin to see how this project could be extremely fruitful for them.  Individual commitment levels rise.  As this information is shared, trust grows within the team.

Phase 7: Customer Scrutiny

Once the individuals have spoken their needs and committed to helping each other to meet those needs, mental and emotional energy is released to pay attention to the customers of the project.  The team now goes through a phase of understanding the customers’ desires at as deep or deeper a level than they have just done for themselves.  The result is usually a dramatic refocusing of the entire project.

Phase 8: Vision

Armed with an understanding of themselves and the customer, the team embarks on the process of developing a product design algorithm.  This is usually a fairly quick affair, as the hard work of learning how to learn together and listening to the customer has already been done.  The hardest part of this phase is waiting for the big idea.  The resulting vision should have jaw drop appeal to the customer.

Phase 9: Design

Only now is the team actually ready to begin designing a product.  From this stage forward, the team is continually refining its product vision and working together skills. 


The leader’s role in all of the above is to notice the phases and work toward quickening the pace of progress.  No stage can be skipped.  The leader can’t rush through and say “ok, I’ve got the vision now, let’s move on”.  But, through wise council, the leader can assure the team that the struggle is normal, necessary, and surmountable.

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