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Meetup: High-performing teams + IT's role in value creation

10 Jun 2019

| Author: Paul Dykes


Meetup: High-performing teams + IT's role in value creation

Our latest Agile Managers and Leaders Meetup took us to Cathedral View, which boasts a charming roof terrace with views over Victoria. With beer, pizza and the fine view of Westminster Cathedral having put us in a suitably exalted frame of mind, we kicked off the meetup with Stephen Morris, Director of Open Square and winner in the 'Most Influential Business Leader' category at the 2016 UK Agile Awards.

Key ingredients of high-performing teams

Stephen built a career in IT and cloud computing, running teams and delivering value. He began to notice that there are some teams that rock, that just “get it”. Over time, he started to pin down what set these teams apart. They were fantastic to work with. They delivered great results. They dealt with problems constructively. And they engaged thoroughly with the organisation’s direction of travel.

Having classified this species of team, Stephen began to investigate what an IT leader needed to do to create a team that rocks.


How to shape and lead a team that rocks

First of all, Stephen told the Story of the Taoist Farmer, the lesson of which is that you cannot control events and you cannot predict accurately whether the outcomes of an event will be good or bad. So, producing a high-performing team isn’t about following a process with predetermined outcomes, it’s a more holistic approach to influencing change by paying attention to and understanding motivations, behaviours, environments.

In this context, Stephen has found that there are five key ingredients of shaping and leading a high-performing team.

1) Visualise

Stephen quoted Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” In other words, in leading your team you should be clear about the collective goal and, through your understanding of people, you should encourage them to invest in the goal in a way that is meaningful to them.

Through the work of Carl Jung, Myers and Briggs, it is possible to have a good sense of your team’s psychological preferences – whether they are introverted or extroverted, whether they make decisions based on data and reason or on feelings and emotional intelligence.

With this understanding, you can pitch your vision in context, helping it to resonate with different people in the right way for them, while you remain authentic.

2) Humanise

Telling the story of the Sword of Damocles, Stephen explained that if people are stressed and anxious, they won’t make good decisions or perform well. For example, in a report on the reasons why medical errors went unreported, the second most frequent reason (the first being uncertainty as to whether it was an error) was due to anxiety as to how the manager would react.

Too often, people’s decisions and behaviours are strongly influenced by concerns about perception in the prevailing culture of an organisation – so, rather than admitting mistakes or experimenting with new and possibly better approaches, people keep their heads down and carry on.

For teams to get better, to begin to rock, a leader has to make it OK to admit to and learn from errors, including errors made by the managers themselves. Requesting constructive feedback should be habitual – as should acting on that feedback. On this topic, Stephen recommended Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success.

3) Organise

We’re going through a period of unprecedented change. Jason Bradbury coined the phrase “The Thousand Year Decade” to describe the astronomical rate of progress that we will experience in the next ten years, thanks to the Fourth Industrial Revolution

From 2018-2022, the World Economic Forum predicts that 75 million current job roles may be displaced due to increasing automation, while 133 million new job roles may emerge at the same time, such as Data Analysts, Software and Applications Developers, Social Media Specialists, Sales and Marketing Professionals and Innovation Managers.

In this context, employers will need to support people in reskilling and upskilling. And they should expect that employees will shop around more and even find ways to work for more than one company at a time, learning about different sectors, different working cultures.

So, leaders need to seek out and secure people with amazing skills in a volatile, competitive marketplace, promoting why people should join the team – distilling the employee value proposition, which should include investing in the team’s skills.

4) Realise

Stephen explained that change is happening all the time; you might be creating change or handling the impact of change to your approaches, culture and rhythm. Humans are great at change if they are engaged and the environment is right.

As a leader, you need to map behaviours – both current behaviours and the intended behaviours that are best suited to the change you’re seeking to introduce or respond to. Then, the team needs to be encouraged to adopt the new behaviours, both through the removal of any impediments and through constant feedback – positive reinforcement to affirm and embed the new ways of working and behaving. Going back to Myers-Briggs, this feedback should be tailored to the recipient’s view of the world, e.g. thinkers vs feelers.

5) Optimise

There are always opportunities to be more efficient. With the right approach, Stephen explained, you can cut the time and resources needed to do many things. But why stop there? With more energy available for value creation, what will you do?

In this context, Stephen recommended structured thinking to standardise and organise workflows. He showed the group two images – one of a chaotic music studio with everything in disarray, one where the studio was neatly organised – and asked them which environment they would prefer. Through continuous improvement of well organised structures, methods, processes and systems, the team can focus on optimising the flow of real work.

Following this conclusion, Stephen recommended his ebook, available to download for free here.

IT's role in value creation

Now that we had a better sense of the key ingredients of IT teams that *rock*, IndigoBlue consultants Stan Wade and Simon Houghton took to the floor to explain what's different about the way those teams create value for the most successful companies.

What we’re aiming for: IT as a business partner

Stan explained that there had been a move in recent years to expand Agile ways of working beyond the IT organisation. When Agile is isolated within IT, it can only achieve so much and will often be impeded by rigid command-and-control structures within the rest of the organisation. This expansion beyond IT to adopt Agile principles in the business layer of the organisation is often referred to as ‘Business Agility’.

Before describing the positive future that Business Agility may deliver, Stan took the group back into the past to explain the story of IT’s evolution and Agility’s isolation.

Where we’ve come from: IT as a service

In the early days of modern computers, IT sat under Finance, with all computers being designed for accountancy. But computers and IT soon expanded beyond Finance; with each passing year, computers grow more and more powerful – but the real growth is in the ever expanding uses to which they are put.


Computing and technology have never been more central to our lives, but as of 2016, only 2% of FTSE 350 companies had a technology specialist on their board of directors. This stems from the IT organisation being seen from the early days as a service provider, employing engineers doing a blue-collar role. With this perception of IT as a service, businesses began to outsource IT, with disastrous results. IT is business critical; nothing business critical should be outsourced.

Along came Agile, and IT started to become better at delivering working software by planning and delivering incrementally, through better collaboration and management of uncertainty. All of this good work was contained within IT, so a role was created to provide the interface between the ‘white collar’ business and ‘blue collar’ IT: the Product Owner. However, too much was expected from this single individual; to represent the business, the customer, the IT team, and to understand them all inside-out.

So, IT now finds itself underpinning everything in businesses, but still not accorded the respect it deserves. What’s the solution? IT needs to present itself credibly to the business, to gain trust and respect, to be accepted as an equal partner, and to talk a common language.

The Value Proposition Canvas

Simon introduced an invaluable tools in helping IT to acquire this common language: Strategyzer’s Value Proposition canvas. This canvas both frames the conversation and visualises the outcome, providing a means of reaching a shared understanding and common purpose.


The primary role of the Value Proposition canvas is in product development. It is designed to help explore and understand a problem and its intended solution, and to evaluate how well they match. In this way, it occupies the space where the Product Owner normally resides. 
The Value Proposition canvas comprises three components:

  • On the right is a representation of what the customer needs
  • On the left sits a representation of what the organisation is offering
  • The third component is the relationship between these and the strength of that bond – the Product-Market Fit; get a good fit and your product or service has a high chance of doing well

In order to populate these canvases, it’s vital to get the right stakeholders in the room and to devote sufficient time to populating it well. Once the two sides of the canvas are completed, you’re looking for the Product-Market Fit – the features of your product that should help the customer to achieve a gain, reduce a pain or carry out a job to be done (in relation to which, Stan recommended the free eBook, Jobs to be Done, by Anthony W Ulwick).

The canvases then provide a set of hypotheses to test around how you expect your product will deliver value.

The Starship Enterprise exercise

Captain’s Log, Stardate 2019.6: in order to provide a quick demonstration of the canvas in action, the group was split in two, with one group representing Starfleet, the other representing the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701, ready to boldly go on its five-year mission to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilisations.


The crew was the customer, the people with the jobs to be done who hoped to live long and prosper in their new vessel. Starfleet was the business, offering a product – the Enterprise – that needed to meet the needs of the crew.

Over in Starfleet Headquarters, Admiral Houghton facilitated a discussion with his starship designers and engineers around whether deflector shields, a transporter room and a gutsy crew were customer jobs, gain creators or pain relievers.

Meanwhile in space dock, Admiral Wade encouraged the assembled officers and crew to specify their duties to be done, the features of the starship that would really add value and the impediments that held them back.


Beaming everyone back to London and mustering the group together, the two admirals looked for Product-Market Fit on the combined canvas. The Enterprise cannot land on planets? No problem, it’s equipped with matter transporters. Enemies such as the Klingons, Romulans and Khaaaaaaan pose a threat? This pain can be relieved by fore and aft photon torpedo launchers and four Type-1 phaser banks. And so on.

Following this useful demonstration, Stan concluded that populating a Value Proposition canvas is not a one-off exercise. While the customer needs should remain relatively static, the solutions are likely to change much more frequently, especially in terms of technology (e.g. from handheld communicators to communicator badges) – and it’s vital for organisations to be vigilant and remain competitive with their Product-Market Fit.


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Paul Dykes

Paul is a highly experienced digital product owner and digital marketer, with experience of leading digital marketing teams and directing the development of multi-million-pound web development projects.


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