The Two Types of Team Performance

bride and groom in rainboots and puddle

Lots of brides think the way to ensure a picture-perfect wedding day is to plan everything to a T, only to face rain, crazy relatives, a stumble down the aisle, or all of the above. The bride has no choice but to weather the storm and make the most of it. While the initial planning made the event possible, the surprises made it memorable.

Some executives and managers plan projects like a couple plans their big day. They try to account for every variable to ensure the project runs smoothly. In the process, they can forget that great work can happen in response to unexpected challenges.

At Redbooth, a recent website migration project started out with an impeccable plan-of-action but quickly faced the chaos of a wedding gone awry when 3rd party systems stopped communicating as expected. This required the web team to pause the migration in order to determine the appropriate alternatives while under the deadline of live web traffic. With the team lead’s quick troubleshooting and the help of marketing to implement the patches, the website migration resumed, on-schedule and seemingly without a hitch.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, authors of Primed to Perform, call planning-based action tactical performance, and quick, reactive thinking adaptive performance. Both are required if you want to see positive outcomes, no matter what work or life throws at you.

In this article, we’ll explore each type of performance and show how the most effective teams incorporate both into their project management strategy.

Forming a dual performance strategy

A 2007 study of assembly lines at a mobile phone factory revealed how drastically management styles can alter team performance.

At the mobile company, which the study called Precision, teams were carefully monitored and asked to follow strict processes. Executives had designed many methods for measuring team performance. But when production lines were hidden from managers’ views, the performance of employees on those lines increased by 10% to 15%. These teams found more efficient ways to build the devices behind their managers’ backs.

At Precision, the tactical performers did what was asked of them, but the adaptive performers excelled.

To understand how tactical and adaptive performance affect your team, it helps to have a working definition of each. According to McGregor and Doshi:

“Tactical performance is how effectively your organization sticks to its strategy. It is the driver of focus and consistency. It allows organizations to increase strength by directing limited resources to the fewest targets.”

Tactical performance is metrics-driven, numbers-heavy, quantifiable progress. Tactical performance relies on proven methods to maintain the status quo. If you’ve ever worked at a large, highly structured corporation, you’re probably familiar with tactical performance.

On the other hand, the authors say:

“Adaptive performance manifests as creativity, problem solving, grit, innovation, and citizenship. It allows organizations to create value in a world filled with, as the U.S. military says, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, where technology and strategy changes rapidly.”

Adaptive performance is reactive. If you’ve ever worked at a small startup, you probably know what it’s like to encounter new challenges every day. Performance may be loosely measured by revenue or new business brought in, but the ability to deal with unpredictability is essential to making it to the next milestone.

It’s easy to think of these types of performance pitted against each other, and to think of rigorous process as the enemy of creativity and collaboration. But the truth is, successful companies need both.

Project management at a small or medium-size firm already requires a bit more adaptability than assembly line management, because no two projects are exactly alike. That doesn’t mean project managers should completely forget about structure. Here’s how we suggest building tactical and adaptive performance into your next project:

  • Assign specific, yet flexible roles that give workers autonomy
  • Create a schedule that allows for unstructured time to test new ideas
  • Set qualitative and quantitative goals for measuring team performance

Thinking about both types of performance at the start of a project will help to guide both workers and managers in making sure the project moves along smoothly and reaches its full potential.

Assign specific, yet flexible roles

In an assembly line, everyone has a fixed function. Everyone is expected to produce the same parts day-in and day-out. This is great for meeting tactical expectations and delivering a steady output. If you want to produce something better than yesterday, you have to perform adaptively. And to perform adaptively, you have to allow people to try new ideas.

Within a project, you can do this by setting higher-level deadlines and goals rather than apportioning tasks at the micro level.

Perhaps you assign an engineering team the task of building a search engine feature for your app. As the manager, you know what the search function should do and why you need it, but there are many solutions that could work to solve the search “problem.” It needs to be done by the third week in January.

So you lay out the tasks for the engineering team, with different team members assigned to different stages.

search engine project tasks and timeline assignments in Redbooth

The task list breaks the project down into stages, lays out a timeline, and sets a clear deadline. This guides the team to know who’s responsible for what, when each piece is due, and why it needs to be done by then.

At the same time, the list only provides a broad overview, and doesn’t instruct on the daily or hourly basis. It doesn’t offer exact specifications for the final product. A manager who assigns a project in this way shows confidence in employees’ abilities to figure those things out on their own.

The team members in turn have more freedom to come up with original ideas and figure out where best to apply their strengths and skills. When they encounter problems with previously trusted methods, they won’t forge ahead anyway, but instead try to find a better way of doing things. They can learn from mistakes and successes, and pool knowledge with their coworkers.

When you allow team members to take ownership of their roles and explore alternative paths to a project goal, you create a more effective team that grows and learns together.

Build unstructured time into the schedule

In the assembly line structure, you can guarantee tactical performance by creating a tight schedule that asks for the same processes to be performed over and over again, without any downtime. A schedule is a planner’s favorite tactical tool, but when you make your schedule adaptive, you may actually get better results.

Strict schedules have major benefits. Schedules aid time management, coordination, and momentum as you move towards your goals. Sticking to a schedule lets people know what they’re doing and when. It provides transparency and clarity in a neat visual representation of time.

There are ways to build creative time into an otherwise structured project schedule, especially at the early stages. When you’re creating something unfamiliar or new, it might help to start the timeline with a conceptualization or ideating stage. You can also build a similar window into the middle of the project.

In the search engine project, it might look like this:

search engine project timeline view with concept and ranking philosophy built in
The conceptualization and ranking philosophy stages have been built into the search project to allow the team to think creatively before and between difficult tasks.

Adding an extra day or two just to think about things may not seem like the most productive use of time in terms of output, but it saves the team from making bad decisions or simply inferior ones that will need to be corrected down the line. It also allows teammates to have meaningful conversations and provides much needed perspective on whether the project is heading in the right direction.

Of course you can’t abandon your schedule or sideline your to-do list. But when you consider the different ways to divide and use time, you can find more of it to be creative.

Set quantitative and qualitative goals

On an assembly line, team performance is measured tactically. At Precision, employees were rewarded for producing phones in a certain way. If adaptive performance had been incentivized, then the new techniques the workers discovered for assembly would not have remained a secret. In turn, Precision would have produced more devices.

You may feel like the assembly line manager, compelled to judge workers based solely on quantifiable results. But if your metrics are all related to revenue or output, you’ll see mostly tactical performance in response. Employees won’t bother with intangibles like leadership or teamwork.

The search engine project’s success can be quantified in many ways. Perhaps you measure engagement, and you see that people are using the new feature a ton, and visitors to your app are staying longer. It’s easy to see it as a tactical win, but that is an incomplete picture of success.

You can get qualitative data on projects by conducting pre- and postmortems. Before starting, ask employees to express their hopes and concerns for the project. After, ask them to write about their experiences, what went well and what didn’t, and how they felt about their colleagues’ work. Another option is a survey that asks them to rate their experiences on a scale.

When you collect qualitative data, you can see what project aspects to replicate and what needs to be fixed in the future, so that even wins become opportunities for improvement.

By rewarding adaptive performance in addition to tactical, you can find less obvious ways to improve your bottom line, and more quickly scale processes that work well.

Double the performance, double the productivity

Whether you’re at the startup or institution level, tactical and adaptive performance are both crucial to long-term productivity.

Tactical strategies set teams up for smashing goals and avoiding major crises, and adaptive strategies enable creativity and experimentation that will unlock growth.

With both of these goals in mind, you can create high-performing teams that consistently deliver exceptional work that goes above and beyond all expectations.