Think of a time when you were working as part of a team and performing at your best. It is probably a period in which everything was “clicking” into place, you were in the zone – perhaps time seemed to stand still.

Remember it?  That project or initiative or deadline when the team acted as one, the work was efficient and fun, and you contributed at the peak of your performance.

For me this time harkens to a team that I led during a portfolio company’s due diligence of a potential acquisition. The CEO, finance, development and sales teams were all focused on analyzing whether to do the deal, and at what price; and the Insight Onsite team worked alongside, assisting with due diligence, financial, tech and customer analysis.  Everyone was focused, we were on a deadline, we lacked sleep, but we felt as sharp as tacks.

This experience is typical:  when people are asked to describe a time when they were in the zone, what it felt like and why, they mention alignment around a common goal, a strong leader who has a game-plan, trust in their colleagues, appropriate division of labor between team members, high energy, strong team bonds, mastery of their subject matter,  a feeling of being in control, and of having fun.  In short – time seems to stand still and they experience peak performance.

When companies first start-up, every day is like this.  The founders are strongly aligned around a vision that they are passionate about, and the team is empowered and focused on getting the product out of the door to sign up the first customers and bring revenue in the door.

If the team is successful, the company scales and grows, adding more customers, more products and importantly, more people.  It’s at this point, that the “zone” may become elusive.

When companies grow they risk losing their sense of community. More people are further from the center, further from the initial vision, and the company typically begins to hire people who know how to ‘color inside the lines’ rather than the initial entrepreneurial team who thrive on coloring outside the lines, or redefining the lines.  Appropriately, given that the company is no longer a “start-up”, the mix of people in the company shifts from being predominantly product people, to a mix of people driven by marketing and sales quotas, and commercial incentives.

Across Insight’s portfolio, healthy organizations whose teams are regularly “in the zone” manage to maintain alignment in three areas, even as they scale:

* Goal alignment
* Cultural alignment
* Meaning alignment

Goal alignment means ensuring agreement on vision and direction in order to focus work effort.   For the company this is the vision and mission that excites people to come to work; for departments, this represents the goals of the individual teams in support of the broader picture.  Teams with clear goals, a plan to get there, a manager who removes distractions, and tools to help them be effective, are more likely to function well. 

As a leader, ask yourself:  does everyone in my organization know where we are headed, how we plan to get there and the role they can play in getting there?   If not, you’re in the dead zone, not the end zone.

Cultural alignment describes how a company’s culture and leadership impacts the quality of execution.  Be honest with yourself about how much friction exists in your system. In particular: the amount and prevalence of internal politics, whether leaders are respected, whether there’s a preponderance of “A” team members and/ or a tolerance of under-performers, if there’s trust between team members, and whether employees believe their leaders to be capable?  The breakdown of any one of these areas can lead to under-performance and poor execution against goals.   Daniel Pink refers this as EQ – the Emotional Quotient — personal insight as to which behaviors are an impediment to effective performance and how to minimize friction as it relates to enabling people to deliver their best work.

As a leader, ask yourself :  does our culture enable people to work with the smartest and most capable talent and does it ensure that they work in an environment that fosters strong communication, useful processes that increase efficiency and demand quality execution? Mmmm, this is a lot to architect.

Alignment around meaning is equally essential.  In high pressure tech-company environments where deadlines are a way of life and the possibility of burn-out is real, people need to feel like their work is meaningful and they are being appropriately recognized and rewarded. Meaning alignment requires recognition, rewards and time for renewal.  At companies like Google, people are renewed when they work on projects they are passionate about, when they tackle something they haven’t done before, and when their projects are recognized as being important.   It is not enough that people are rewarded for their efforts;  they also need to find time to refresh and renew their motivation so that they are ready for the next push in pursuit of the goal.

As a leader, ask yourself:  do we showcase our top performers, are our incentives aligned with the behavior we want to encourage, and do we take the time to renew our motivation and teamwork through social events, fun activities, and, importantly, time to work on side projects that stimulate creativity and learning?  If yes, you likely have a healthy organization and engaged employees.

Imagine if you could always work in high functioning teams. You can. 

People who strive towards known goals, in a culture that builds strong leaders, supports smart thinkers and fosters trust, perform well.  Excellence emerges when we couple this with appropriate recognition, incentives and time for rejuvenation.

Finally, back to my story about being “in the zone” – the time when we worked very long hours on an acquisition in a high stakes environment – well, we didn’t do the deal.  It was the right decision. Our team reached the right conclusion. We gave our best, we learned, and we won collectively.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.