Sunday, February 4, 2018

Strengthening the Relational Infrastructure to Build High-Performing Teams

By Jody Gold with Mario Moreira

Teams, not individuals, are the essential building blocks of sense-making and action-taking in organizations.  Research, theory, and experience tell us that great teams depend as much on the relationships between the people, as the people themselves.

When I was younger, I spent years practicing leadership development the way most consultants do. We focused on strengthening the skills of individuals and hoped that teams would automatically improve as a result. We probably knew that relationships are the connective tissues that hold teams together, but we didn’t provide the mindsets, maps, or tools for people on teams to take care of the entire network of relationships themselves. Improving the skills of individuals is like lifting weights without strengthening and stretching the ligaments and tendons that connect them.

The Way We Can provides the mindset, maps, and methodology needed to build the capacities teams need to perform as interconnected, coordinated, adaptive wholes. It’s the ‘how’ of how we think and act like we’re in it together.  This is true whether the ‘it’ is diversity and inclusion, building resilient communities, or succeeding in complex and chaotic business environments. 

The heartbeat of our approach is building the relationship infrastructure that is the most important contributor to and predictor of a high-performing team.  Economic activity and value creation can only happen when working infrastructure (roads, bridges, tunnels; power grids; telecommunication; the Internet, etc.) support them. Might relationship infrastructure be equally important?

Research from MIT[i] and Google[ii] show that the pattern and quality of interactions within teams contributes more significantly to high-performance than the personalities, experience, skills, and individual intelligence of team members combined. In the image above, a blue line between two people represents a relationship, the first-class entities that Mario Moreira writes about in his recent article. Wider lines illustrate more interactions, more capacity, and deeper relationships.  The entire network of connections within a team comprises the relationship infrastructure. 

Developing the capacity for team members to speak to each other—in the open—is an indicator of a healthy relationship infrastructure.  It replaces the common norms of talking offline, not engaging, or scapegoating.  We call this speaking “in the eyes and ears of the whole”—a capacity that creates the foundation for many other high-functioning behaviors, including delivering effective feedback.

Agile uses early and iterative feedback about products so developers can generate more valuable and higher quality products faster. The Way We Can uses early and iterative feedback to optimize the relationships that high-performing teams depend on.  Feedback about relationships is the most direct way to build trust, psychological safety, and resilience so teams can turn their energy into results instead of friction. 

Both agile and The Way We Can bring feedback into the open where it can do the most good.  When entire teams understand their shared challenges, they are better able to collectively solve them.  In addition to improved feedback, a healthy relationship infrastructure supports other behaviors including increased ownership and accountability; collaboration and innovation; engagement and satisfaction; and leadership that is distributed, flexible, and emergent.

Relationships are first class entities, real things that can be built, maintained, and repaired.  Yet it’s the entire web of relationships, the relational infrastructure, within the best teams that enable them to out-think, out-perform, and out-happy the others. 

Thanks Mario for inviting me to expand these concepts with you. 

We hope you enjoyed Part 2 of the Relationship series. Consider reading Part 1 & 3 
(Part 1) Importance of treating Relationships as First Class Entities 

- (Part 3) Woven Together - A Practice to build Authentic Connection and Psychological Safety 

[i] Pentland, Alex S. (2012, April). The New Science of Building Great Teams. Retrieved from
[ii] Duhigg, Charles. (2016, Feb. 25). What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.  Retrieved from