How to Create Team Excellence

Nakamura Hiroki
14 min readMar 20, 2022

While talking to a colleague in the company, he mentioned that he regularly rereads my previous presentations I have given somewhere. I actually didn’t remember much of what I had said, but I was grateful if it was useful, and I would like to get on with it and try to summarize it as I recall its contents.

The theme is how to create team excellence. When you have a vision you want to achieve something or a big goal you want to accomplish, there is little you can do alone. You need a team to accomplish something. However, it is not the case that just getting together a group of talented people is enough to make a strong team. A lot of things need to be considered and done in order for team performance to exceed the sum of individual performance.

Building a strong team is a very big subject. I myself am not sure what the only correct answer is, as I have been experimenting with it for a long time. However, through my experience with various teams and various projects, I think I have been able to identify some important elements. I would like to explain them one by one.

If the team is not strong, it is always your fault

When thinking about something, it is of utmost importance to set the issue correctly before thinking about how to solve it. If the problem is set incorrectly, no matter how many solutions you come up with and implement, they will either be meaningless or ineffective.

So what are the issues that will make the team stronger?

If you are in a position to lead a team, such as a people manager or product manager in an organization, you often feel issues with the strength of the team. Team members lack skills, don’t work as well as expected, don’t have independence, etc. What should I do? I am sometimes asked. The answer is simple. To make your team stronger, you must change yourself. In other words, if you feel that your team is facing a strength challenge, then the issue that needs to be resolved is always you.

Some people think about moving others at first, but as long as you try to change others, you will never have a strong team. Whether or not you can become a strong team is not about changing others or using some technique to get others to act, but it is all about whether or not you yourself can take the appropriate actions necessary to build a strong team.

Now I will write about what you should do yourself to build a strong team.

Get to know each person deeply

As for my own management policy, “Trust & Respect” is the most important. It is easy to say that I respect someone. It is natural to treat someone with respect and politeness. What is essentially important, however, is to properly understand the strengths of the person to be respected.

To properly understand their strengths, you need to know them deeply. Why they are working, why they are in the company/team they are in, what they want to accomplish, what you are good at and what you think others are not good at, etc. The questions to ask to get to know them deeply are very simple.

However, there are two important things to consider in asking these questions.

The first is always to speak first. Before you listen, you must first speak, organize your thoughts so that you can speak, and first speak about your own vision and values. This is the main principle. And the second important thing is not to force an answer. What you should avoid is not knowing something that is in them, and there is absolutely no need to force yourself to ask something that is not there. Rather, if it is not there, it is very important to know that it is not there.

Many people seem to know surprisingly little about the people they work with in depth. The longer you know them, the more difficult it becomes to ask, so I recommend asking as early as possible, but it is never too late (although you will almost certainly be surprised if you ask suddenly). And when you actually ask the question, you will often get answers you never imagined. Each person’s values are diverse and very interesting to listen to.

So, what state of being can we say we know deeply? I think it is whether or not you can predict the person. When you ask for advice or make a request, what kind of response will you get, how will the conversation progress, and what kind of conclusion is likely to be reached? In other words, it is not about knowing the past, but being able to predict the future. If you can predict the future, I think you can say that you know the person in some depth.

Build networks and be predictable

After getting to know each person in depth, the next phase is to connect people and build a network that functions as a team. You connect what you want to do to achieve our vision with what each person can and wants to do. Instead of leaving it to someone else, you yourself will make the connection.

I believe there are three important points to consider in this process.

The first is to make connections based on an understanding of each person, rather than based on roles. Many people have abilities beyond their roles. This is especially true if you have a team with many mid-career and senior people. On the other hand, if we make connections based on roles, we will not be able to utilize their abilities beyond their roles. Therefore, based on our understanding of each person, we make connections so that strengths interact or strengths and weaknesses complement each other.

The second is to make them as multiple and interconnected as possible without connecting them hierarchically. Of course, hierarchical structure is necessary for decision making based on corporate governance. On the other hand, in an environment where it is common for members to have more expertise than managers, it is not possible to fully utilize the expertise of each person through hierarchical connections alone. This is because those at the top of the hierarchy cannot understand 100% of each person’s expertise. In an environment where expertise is diversifying, it is very difficult for a so-called supervisor to acquire all expertise. Instead, it is more important to create diverse connections that are not visualized in the organizational structure, and to create a relationship in which mutual expertise is utilized and a network in which information generated by that expertise flows appropriately. The more interconnected they are, the more appropriate the flow of necessary information to where it is needed, resulting in greater transparency in the team.

Third, consider the compatibility of each person. It is certainly a good argument to say that it is work, so let’s deal with it regardless of compatibility. However, as human beings, it is also true that some people are easy to work with while others are not. Even though it is not possible to take 100% of everything into consideration, as much as possible, you should consider not only skill sets but also people’s compatibility, and design who and how they can work together in a fun and pleasant way. Taking compatibility into account will certainly improve the performance of the team.

When these three things are implemented, there will be more organic connections and a structure that is more resilient to change. Being resilient to change is a state of convergence to an optimal solution in an independent manner. And when it becomes a state of independent convergence, it becomes possible to predict how it will converge in response to a certain change. For example, when a new person joins the team, it becomes possible to predict where he or she will fit in the network, what changes will occur as a whole, and how overall performance will change as a result. As connections become stronger and more predictable with respect to change, we can move on to the next phase of improvement.

Continue to improve the network and enable fast iterations

Improvements are made when changes become predictable. Conversely, you shouldn’t move into the improvement phase without being able to predict improvement. Improvement without forecasting is simply guesswork. If you cannot predict the overall change for a given change, it is either because you do not know each person deeply or you have not built a self-organized network. In such cases, your priority is to become confident in our predictions before making poor improvements.

Back to the story. What is important in the improvement phase is which points to improve. Improvement focuses only on bottlenecks. Points where work gets stuck, points where communication loops, points where work somehow mysteriously does not get done, etc. There are many reasons for this, such as lack of skills to execute, poor compatibility and communication breakdowns, and so on. And there are almost always a large number of various issues with different reasons.

The only issues that should be focused on are those that have the greatest impact (on results) when solved. This is easier said than done, but very difficult to do effectively and efficiently. This is because most bottlenecks take time to resolve, and because they take time, it is necessary to prepare solutions in advance in parallel.

I don’t think you can improve at the expected speed if you are directly solving the problem by discovering>resolving>discovering>resolving. Therefore, the next bottleneck and the next bottleneck after that are addressed even before it is clearly identified as a bottleneck. Since these are often not apparent, it can be difficult to gain the understanding of those around us and progress can be difficult. It is good if you are in a situation where you can proceed under your own authority, but if not, you first need to make people understand the situation. Since it takes time to find people who understand the situation, it is necessary to determine the scope of what you can effectively do, and then build a timeline for resolution.

And there is one more difficult point. A positive difficulty is the need to predict the rate at which people will grow. Often, when you think it could be an issue, it is no longer an issue at all because some people grow beyond your imagination. Growth beyond imagination is a very positive thing. However, it is a point that managers should reflect on in terms of how they spend their time, because they should not have had to spend their time there in the first place, and they should have spent their time elsewhere.

In summary, the idea is to solve the problems in order of greatest impact when solved, while simulating the cost and time change required for improvement through foresight and simulation. This is easier said than done, but very difficult to do accurately. However, if you make predictions on a daily basis, the accuracy will naturally improve. As accuracy improves, the opportunity to spend time on inefficient improvements is drastically reduced.

There is no end to continuous improvement, but the more you improve, the faster you iterate because the time required to produce results is shorter. The faster you iterate, the more you learn quickly, which in turn lowers risk and increases the probability of success.

Make network improvements more efficient

Once the cycle of improvement is created, you can increase the efficiency of improvement further. There are two main approaches to increasing the efficiency of improvement.

The first is to reduce variability and increase efficiency where you are confident that it will continue to work. For example, assigning roles and establishing rules for information sharing. These decisions basically reduce variability. However, since efficiency is increased by reducing variability, they are useful at points where you are confident that things will continue to work well without the need for change. However, of course, it is not certain that change will not be necessary all the time. Therefore, the need for change must be regularly observed. If you feel the need for change, you should break the rule immediately.

The second is to improve the efficiency of observation. It involves building a network where issues can be collected efficiently and establishing regular meetings to create a system where information can be obtained efficiently. Of course, these frameworks, such as information collection networks and regular meetings, can only be created by guesswork if you do not understand the flow of information. Therefore, after repeated trial and error in the improvement phase to determine the flow of information and the degree of change, a necessary and sufficient framework is created.

If you can even make the improvements more efficient, you will be in a position to function quite independently, including yourself. However, managers and leaders have another important role to play. That is to fill in the gaps.

Predict and fill in gaps

So far, I have written about improving team performance. On the other hand, I am often asked when I talk about connecting each person’s strengths to enhance team performance. That is, can you achieve your vision and goals by drawing out the team’s performance? The answer to this question is basically No. No matter how much you maximize the performance of your current team, there will most likely be a large gap between what you can achieve with the team and what you want to achieve.

For managers and leaders, maximizing team performance is very important, but the objective is only to realize the vision and achieve the goals. Gaps that cannot be filled must be filled somehow. How exactly to fill them will vary from time to time, but there is always an anti-pattern that should be avoided. That is not to force members to do something to fill in gaps.

You may be able to ask for help for a short period of time and if it is mutually agreed, but basically it will not last long. It is not a good idea to ask for more if you are already getting the maximum performance out of it. It will break the team. It is worse to feel like you have completed the job by forcing it on them and then bemoaning the fact that the results do not meet your expectations.

So what to do? Basically, you should solve the problem by other means. One means is to use other teams, forces outside the company. Hiring and fundamentally raising the potential of the team is, of course, also effective. If you are good at what you do and your energy and stamina allow you to do it, you may consider handling it yourself. In all cases, however, all of these things take time to implement and be effective. If you are relying on other teams or forces outside the company, it is essential that you make connections on a regular basis. As for hiring, you need to sort out what kind of people you will need and, if possible, who specifically you would like to hire. Even if you are handling this yourself, you need to make sure you have the right environment so that you can use your own time.

Therefore, instead of understanding exactly what the gap is before acting, one must be prepared to predict the gap and implement it in advance. This amount of preparation is the point at which your competence as a manager or leader is tested. If you run out of ways to fill the gap, you will ask your team to do the impossible and take away their margin. When the margin is lost, the team gradually loses its strength. In order to maintain the strength of the team, it is necessary to prepare as many “outside solutions” as possible.

If the means are no longer available, you can only lament your lack of ability to predict what will happen, and change your plans by postponing schedules or lowering targets, etc. Unfortunately, even if you think of a plan to deal with the situation after you realize that you no longer have the means to deal with it, you will most likely not get it done in time. Therefore, it all comes down to how far ahead you can predict and prepare.

Networked team structure works effectively both bottom-up and top-down

A bit of a side topic, but when I talk about networked team structures, is the goal to reinforce a bottom-up approach? The question is sometimes asked. The answer is neither yes nor no. I think it is effective for both bottom-up and top-down.

It is intuitive and easy to see that a networked team structure is effective for a bottom-up approach. Diverse connections without a hierarchical organizational structure can aid in knowledge sharing among projects and the generation of coincidental ideas.

On the other hand, it is also very effective in a top-down approach. The reason for this is that the communication channels of information can be optimized and multiplexed to efficiently change the overall direction.

The existence of connections other than hierarchical connections can shorten the pathway through which information is transmitted. In addition, the existence of multiple paths for information to be conveyed to a certain person allows the same information to be conveyed from different angles. This also prevents unintended delivery of information. These advantages can be very useful when you want to change the direction of your business and change the direction of your team quickly and at once.

When I talk about networked teams, do they often have a strong bottom-up philosophy? This is not the case at all. A networked team structure is more effective in both bottom-up and top-down situations where each is needed.

At the end

I have written about what I am aware of under the broad theme of how to build a strong team. There are so many cases where the vision is shared but things do not progress efficiently. That is why it is worthwhile to go through trial and error, and you always learn a lot.

In order to build a strong team as quickly as possible, I think it is very important not to fit into a fixed methodology, but to look at the actual situation of the people and the business, optimize for each individual case, and execute. Also, while understanding each person, do not look only at individual points, but always anticipate the overall impact on some action and do only what is really necessary.

What I have written here is not a silver bullet how-to, but rather the basics of knowing people, connecting, predicting, not forcing things, and so on. It is very difficult to keep doing the basics without fail, but if you do it efficiently, I think you will have a good team within a month or so at the earliest, and within three months at the latest.

I cannot say yes with confidence that I am doing 100% myself. I often ask people to do something forcibly, and I am reminded of this every day. I would like to continue to improve little by little and find even better methodologies.