Teamwork 3/ Characteristics of world class teams


This, the third of three blogs about teamwork, looks at the qualities of world class teams and what sets them apart. Here are the first two:

Teamwork 1/ Building teams, building trust
Teamwork 2/ Organising your team

James MacGregor Burns, writing Roosevelt’s biography, said:

“Great teams happen when people engage with others in such a way that raises one another to higher levels of motivation and morality”.

The ability to create a highly productive team is a rare skill. Trickier still to be able to move from being simply producers of great results to developing exceptional people. Great teams are thin on the ground and difficult to build. But they do exist. We know them from the world of sport – Liverpool FC and West Indies cricket team of the ’70s, Barcelona FC of the recent past, the All Black rugby union team in any era. Teams who have transformed, with apparently effortless grace, what their game can accomplish. 


In other realms ‘world class’ is more subjective and hard to measure. It may involve confronting a truly noble struggle. Politicians or humanitarians seize a moment of national or world crisis: King tackles discrimination, Mandela dismantles apartheid, Churchill confronts Hitler, Bevan establishes the NHS.  Or men and women like Anita Roddick or Steve Jobs spinning the working world around. Where courage in times of great uncertainty drives a people or an organisation on and makes the future. But these are just the big names and sometimes that’s not helpful. Our individual culture focuses on charismatic names rather than digging beneath that – remembering their team that made the plans happen. More of that later.

In education and health which teams are changing our professions? When so much of a school leaders’ energy is responding to the freshest accountability measures, who is doing something different, something world class? Beyond national results or PISA scores, something which will have legacy?

Here are 5 of the characteristics that I believe put great teams into a different class, elements from which maybe we can learn in our own working lives?

Great teams are unreasonable about the important things:
“Achieving clarity, focus and alignment sounds reasonable and rational. Effective leaders learn to be selectively unreasonable.” Jo Owen.

There are huge constraints in the world of education and health. Resources are limited. Teacher recruitment is under threat. Workload pressures are worse than ever. So the job of the leader who has to deliver is more challenging than ever, but the unreasonable leader will stand firm on the few things that really matter. We will become unreasonable when we know the ‘felt injustice’ which causes us to feel anger. There are people I admire with a righteous anger about a clear wrong that is just not changing fast enough. Be it pupil premium gap, school funding, handwriting, hot dinners or A&E waiting times. When much of the world is steeped in mediocrity, their edge is refreshing. They shine a light into murkiness. They expect better. 


“If you do things well, do them better.” Anita Roddick

Peak teams are permanently dissatisfied with performance. The approach to learning that is simply never satisfied with former achievements is a key ingredient of becoming world class. Even following victory the New Zealand All Blacks are habitually self-critical.  A poor match is not just an off-day. It is a key learning point. This isn’t a negative mindset, simply a deep desire that there is always more to learn.

“Successful cultures use crisis to crystallise their purpose” Adam Grant 

Great teams learn from failure. Leaders know that it is in the crucible of our most difficult moments, that fundamental truths emerge, growth is forged. Understanding what we are truly about, knowing what our ‘felt injustice’ is, is a process of trying, failing, and learning to get it more right. And of course we see best and clearest what the leadership of an organisation is really like when it is down on its knees. In the way that we treat people, shoulder the blame and share the praise. I can testify that we learn much more from failure than from success.

“We cover up mistakes, not only to protect ourselves from others, but to protect us from ourselves. We all have a sophisticated ability to delete failures from memory, like editors cutting gaffes from a film reel. This is what we call “black box thinking. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.” Matthew Syed

Great teams make the vision real:
Teams must have something to believe in which takes us beyond the individual. All teams have objectives, but few get real vision. There must be an emotional element. It must excite. 

“Visions have two dimensions. For the All Blacks, to be the best in the world. Not all of the All Black teams I played with had a true positive vision. But all had a type of negative vision, a fear of letting down the past.” David Kirk


Research suggests we massively under-communicate our message. Successful organisations build understanding and learning through a few key values, and great leaders are discerning how they go about this. They re-articulate key values until they become foundational. Catchphrases can be cringe-worthy, but some, in a simple way, describe what they about. Michaela’s “doing it differently” has struck a chord, like it or not, across British schools, and it is. The All Blacks’ “leave the jersey in a better place” speaks of legacy; Clive Woodward’s “TQB” (total quality ball) is pretty self explanatory and of course Michael Jordan’s iconic: “I’ve failed over and over and over again and that is why I succeed” has probably achieved more for growth mindset than probably all the posters in all the schools. Values expressed simply and often can form a fundamental part of building character in our children and a shared belief in our teams. The school motto is not just for the prospectus. 

Great teams have a discipline which eliminates mistakes:
The strongest teams do it really, really well. There is a skill of proficiency – a practised way of performing the key skill with precision and consistency. Errors are the exception. Reliability rocks. Staff are provided with models of excellence. Training is not vague but tightly focused around the most important domain skill, close to the point of delivery and led by the best practitioners. Training gets tighter through feedback from colleagues.

Team discipline often which begins with a set of baseline boundaries that define acceptable. These are usually about the small things: dress code, appearance and punctuality. The thinking is that teams who get these essentials right will take that professionalism into battle at work. From these basics, leaders apply these external principles to the way people communicate, and how things are done at work. Over time standards are internalised. There is grassroots raising of expectations. 

Great leaders shine a light onto on micro-behaviours which set the bar. This is much more powerful than generic guidance. In sport, coaches direct attention to the ‘unseen’ moments of a game: a small defensive intervention or supporting teamwork, deflecting focus from the glory goal. Many leaders use a briefing or version of ‘Wine of the Week’ to celebrate together, show gratitude and acknowledge simple, replicable actions where a colleague goes beyond the expected. Support staff who ferried a child home late after a school trip, the teacher who pushed a child to achieve brilliantly in a test; the receptionist who manage a tricky incident with humanity and grace.

In “The Culture Code”, Daniel Coyle describes an expert in sharpening these tiny behaviours. Danny Meyer has created some of the most successful restaurants and cafes on the planet. In the challenging environment of New York (of the 1000 NYC restaurants opened 5 years ago, 800 have already vanished without trace), Meyer has brought a magic touch where not only are his eating places surviving, but they are also picking up awards. So what is he doing we can learn from?

danny m

He seems to be creating the tangible feeling of home. Restaurant staff remember details (birthdays, anniversaries, table near the window) mentioned on the phone when booking, and they conveyor-belt this on so that when customers are served it is remembered and acted on. This is tricky and depends on a chain of communication, awareness and action. Staff watch out for the people-dynamic at a table, are taught to be  proactive and empowered to take initiative, even if in the short term this costs the restaurant money (a free extra glass of wine).

Meyer has precisely identified the processes which create ‘enlightened hospitality’, a simple set of rules that develop intricate behaviours, for example: 

Read the guest; Athletic hospitality; Turning up the Home Dial; Loving problems; Collecting the dots and connecting the dots; One size fits one

Grant describes a moment when with Meyer and a tray of glasses crashes to the floor: “For a microsecond, all the action stops. Meyer raises a finger, pressing pause on our conversation so he can watch. The waiter starts picking up the pieces, and another arrives with a broom and dustpan. The clean-up happens swiftly, and everyone turns back to their food. I ask Meyer why he was watching so closely. “I’m watching for what happens right afterward, and I am looking for their energy level to go up,” he says, “They connect to clean up the problem, and if we are doing our job right, their energy level will go up.” He puts his fists together, and then makes an explosion gesture with his fingers. They are creating uplifting energy that has nothing to do with the task and everything to do with each other and what comes next.”


And what does a bad interaction look like? “Either they are disinterested – ‘I’m just doing my job’ kind of thing. Or they’re angry at the other person or the situation. And if I see that I know that there is a deeper problem here, because the number one job is to take care of each other. I didn’t know how to read a balance sheet or manage flow in a kitchen. But I did know how I wanted to make people feel.”

Huge changes on a national or world stage are often put down to charismatic individuals making great pronouncements, but often what gets the trains to run on time or cuts hospital waiting lists is a well directed team of diligent people with the perseverance to succeed for others. While Tony Blair had visionary ideas and made a great number of electoral promises in his first term in office, when he reached the second term he realised he needed someone to coordinate and lead delivery of these grand ideas.

So the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) was set up and led by Sir Michael Barber, an education leader who has become one of the best proponents of how great teams deliver. 


What were the key features of the PMDU Model?

  • Set clear priorities with measurable goals
  • Establish a dedicated unit focused on getting those things done
  • Use data and trajectories to drive progress
  • Build routines around those priorities (such as stocktake meetings, or monthly notes to the Prime Minister)
  • Help with problem-solving
  • Persistence – stick with those priorities despite the temptations in government to shift the agenda.

Through over fifty visits to Pakistan, Sir Michael has advised on system reform, including creating the ‘Punjab Roadmap. It’s purpose was to improve the quality of education in its 60,000 schools. Achievements are huge: an extra one and a half million children enrolled in school; lesson plans for every teacher and new textbooks for every student; student attendance increased from 83 per cent to 92 per cent and teacher attendance increased from 81 per cent to 91 per cent. An expert on large-scale system change, and authority on education reform, his recent appointment as Chair of the Office for Students (the new regulator for Higher Education in the UK) is no surprise when one biggest ticket items is vice-chancellor pay.

Great teams get organisational health right first:
Pep Guardiola’s first season was seen as a failure, because there was no silverware. But his approach to fixing the club from the bottom up before prioritising performance was evident when in his second season they were generally felt to be the best winning Premiership side for years.


Great teams make the jump from ‘results’ to ‘people’. When we take up a leadership position we make the most difficult of transitions from being responsible for doing the stuff, to being responsible for the people doing the stuff:

“You’re not ‘in charge’. You’re responsible for ‘those in your charge’.” Simon Sinek

This is the crux of organisational health. Improvement in both performance and health allow teams to move beyond systems to address individual behaviours. We change mind-sets, which shifts culture, which becomes sustainable. In schools, organisational health might simply be defined as the ability to recruit great teachers, look after them, and direct behaviours towards high standards. In so doing happy schools grow.

World-class teams genuinely look like they are having fun. Even in the most challenging and traditionally authoritarian roles, they maintain a sense of perspective. The UK’s Royal Navy is a highly disciplined command-and-control organisation where people serve in the intense pressure-cooker of a ship or submarine. But there is increasingly a recognition of how important “soft” leadership skills really are. Current naval training is based on the premise that when two teams with equal resources try the same thing, the successful team will be the one whose leaders better understand how to use the softer skills to maintain effort and motivate. For officers leading teams in tight quarters, there’s no substitute for cheerfulness.


Great teams change the game permanently:
Great teams transform: they create and innovate in a way that will change the way that their industry does things.

“The world-class teams I played with pushed back the boundaries of the game. The opposition was no longer the other teams we played against, but ourselves and the game itself. Opponents were the medium through which we attempted to realise our vision.” David Kirk

Teams are rarely composed of purpose-built, world-class performers. Great leaders choose people who have the potential to become really good. True ability is normally the result of the mastery of skills. In rugby these specialist skills are basic: running, kicking, passing, catching, jumping, tackling, decision making. Each team member has a specific job to do. Each specialist contributes their skill for the team to reach world-class standard. You do your job well, in the confidence that everyone else will too.

But high performing teams are so far ahead of this. They understand the ‘game’ so completely, and practise so intently that unforced errors are eliminated. There is an ‘at ease’ which comes from complete faith in each member. It raises the energy levels of everyone. And the best players have morphed into generalists, losing the stranglehold of skill specialisation. In rugby, forwards have learned to run and pass like backs; in cricket England cannot find a specialist number 3 batsman but they do have 6 all-rounders to choose from. Liverpool’s multi-position, ageing, generalist James Milner (read Matthew Syed’s brilliant article here) is the new toast of the premiership.

This drift towards building wider skill sets is not new. ‘Futsal’ began in Uruguay in the 1930s, with a low bouncing ball to aid control and develop skill, and grew throughout South America. Now famous for launching young Brazilian stars out of the favelas, futsal was developed to be played on shanty town basketball courts, keeping youngsters off the streets. The West German “total football” of the 70s developed futsal, and the ‘Coerver’ method of Dutch football (through Feyenoord and Ajax) helped the Dutch master Johan Cruyff bring this technique to Barcelona. Now every decent football team has players in all positions who can pass, head, dribble and shoot. 

Barcelona’s dominance in European football over the last 20 years is largely due to building on this legacy and developing the onomatopoeic Spanish ‘tiki taka’ style of close touch possession football (think of the sound of all those passes). This influenced the way that young children were coached across Britain over the last 20 years, my boys among them. Less physical, more two-touch, non-contact possession game.  Sometimes the means do not always achieve the desired ends, but in creating the conditions for teams to become more reliably successful, coaches have taken the randomness out of the result. They have inched toward predictable success.


Atul Gawande is himself a study in diligence; a thinker about how to build teams to change the world.

“The index case was an 11 month old boy in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. In April 2003 the family took a trip north to see relatives. Shortly after they returned the boy developed high fevers and bouts of nausea and vomiting. Two days later he was unable to move his legs. This was a confirmed case of polio, a disease thought to have been eliminated from southern India.”

A ‘mop up’ is World Health Organisation language for a targeted campaign to immunise all children at risk surrounding a new case. The campaign is carried out over just three days to ensure that the vaccine floods the population. The challenge: An area of 50,000 square miles; 37,000 vaccinators; 4000 healthcare supervisors; 2000 vehicles; 18,000 insulated vaccine carriers and workers going door-to-door to vaccinate 4.2 million children. A world-changing, herculean task. 


Atul Gawande followed Pankaj Bhatnagar, a WHO paediatrician monitoring the operation. They walked through villages and stopped at dwellings at random. Marked in chalk on each door was a number (the house number), a letter P and that day’s date. The letter P signifying that the vaccinators had come, had identified all of the children under the age of five who lived in the house and that they had all been vaccinated. Pankaj checked that each team had done their job and it is working. But local doctors challenged Pankaj: Why this polio campaign when what is needed is clean water (diarrhoea kills 500,000 Indian children per year), better nutrition (half of under 3s have stunted growth) or working toilets (which would also prevent polio)? Pankaj’s steady,  focused, ‘unreasonable’ reply in the face of these competing priorities: “Ending polio in itself is worthwhile!” But polio is not yet beaten. In India alone, with 24 million children born each year, a huge campaign to immunise has to be planned each year just to stay on track. Gawande accepts this challenge:

“Betterment is a perpetual labour. The world is chaotic, disorganised and vexing. To complicate matters we in medicine are only human. Yet to live as a doctor is to live so that one’s life is bound up with others and in the messy, complicated connection between the two. It is to live a life of responsibility.”


Better – Atul Gawande | Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed | How to Run a Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t go Crazy |The Culture Code – Daniel Coyle | Originals – Adam Grant | Leadership Matters – Andy Buck |The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ – Susan Cain | Winners – Alistair Campbell | Legacy – James Kerr | How to Lead – Jo Owen 

One thought on “Teamwork 3/ Characteristics of world class teams

  1. Pingback: Characteristics of building a great team – KBA Teaching and Learning

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