This One Practice Will Rapidly Accelerate Team Performance

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In the movie, City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays the role of Mitch, a 30 something guy who heads out to the old Wild West to find himself again.  During one scene, Mitch is alone with Curly, the crusty old cowboy, played by actor Jack Palance. Slowly driving the cattle on horseback, they talk about life’s issues:

Curly:  You know what the secret of life is?  (Curly holds up his index finger.)

Mitch:  Your finger?

Curly:  The secret of life is one thing.

Mitch: What is that one thing?

Curly: That’s for you to figure out.  (Rides away on his horse.)

Curly leaves Mitch behind, a bit perplexed.

As a professional coach, I often take the Curly approach, by allowing my clients to figure out the “one thing” that is often the secret of their challenges.  By asking engaging questions, the clients often figure out what is best in their unique situation.  But, I’m going to share one practice to have a great impact on leaders who are trying to get more out of their teams, particularly when it comes to execution and accountability.

Allow me to illustrate the practice.  A few times a year, I conduct a simulation called The Big Picture.  It is a terrific simulation that takes about three hours and powerfully illustrates the challenge of leading teams where cross-functional collaboration is required.  In the simulation, participants must produce a product that meets customer needs, with limited resources while keeping people actively engaged.  It is a fascinating experience that illustrates common team challenges, and it is lots of fun.  We simulate four business quarters (20 minutes each) and within forty minutes, it is a bit chaotic. Teams are confused, individual are frustrated, customers are ready to walk, leaders are feeling vulnerable, and no one other than finance cares about the budget.  It is at this time that I, as the facilitator, stop the team from their work, in what I call a “Time Out of Time”.  I instruct them to physically stop, walk away from the table, form a semi-circle, and respond to my questions.  For about 15 minutes, they reflect on what is taking place, without arguing or debating. Instead, they must answer questions from their own points of view:

  • What are your goals? How is the team working together?  What is / is not working?
  • “What do you need more of, less of, or differently from the other groups?”
  • What is the “one thing” they you personally can do to dramatically improve the team’s success?

We then return to the simulation, and it is fascinating how quickly performance accelerates.  Just a few simple questions to hear others’ perspectives and to gain commitment to some new actions is like a booster shot.  Teams begin executing in ways they could not have even anticipated just a few minutes before.  This is the skill of  Giving and Receiving Feedback, and we just don’t do it very well, especially in group settings.  Yet, with good facilitation, setting important ground rules, and creating an environment of trust, performance truly will accelerate.  In the final half of the simulation, the leaders begin responding and providing clearer instructions, as workers approach their leaders with more candor. People begin to engage customers as part of the “team” as opposed to someone that is a hindrance. Even the finance manager has a warm and fuzzy feeling, as people begin to appreciate that margins and profitability impact performance.

Occasionally over the years, I have delayed the Time Out of Time until after the 3rd quarter.  Not surprisingly, even though the feedback is still valuable, it may be too late to turn performance around.  Once, I even forgot to do the Time Out of Time, and the results showed it.

Though I would like to take credit for inventing this practice, the idea was actually formalized by the U.S. Army, and further perfected by all branches of the military, in what is called an After Action Review (AAR). , many corporations teach this concept to teams in both formal and informal ways.  By holding your own Time out of Time or AAR, you will see performance improve rapidly.  But you have to make it an intentional repeatable practice.  You will be pleased with the change in team culture.

Here are seven simple suggestions for apply a Time Out of Time with your own work teams to begin rapidly accelerate your team’s performance:

  1. Be clear on what your project or team’s expected deliverables are, as well as the roles and responsibilities that everyone will be held accountable for performing.
  1. Establish Time Out of Time as a regular, intentional, or ongoing practice, with a facilitator and a repeatable set of ground rules to ensure effective dialogue. Depending on the project, this may be once per week, month, or quarter. You have to decide.
  1. Recognize that this will take some getting used to.  It will be awkward at first, but after a few times through – with good facilitation – people will engage with more authenticity.
  1. As you facilitate dialogue, start with questions like, “What is working?  What is not working?  What is supposed to happen?  What is it like in your world?  What are some obstacles?”
  1. Practice getting everyone’s unique perspective, without a focus on a culprit, but more of a focus on what the group can do “more of, less of, or differently” to improve results.  This step, if done well, has the greatest return on investment.
  1. Ask each participant to identify one thing they will do to hold themselves accountable for doing differently, and try to get a specific, concrete, and measurable response.
  1. Document everyone’s response with a new set of group and individual goals and actions, and bring them up at the next session. You will find that people will begin to understand that you are serious and that you will hold them accountable – not in a punishing way – but in a manner that reinforces what will truly make a difference.  

In City Slickers, Mitch actually found the “one thing” that brought back his passion for life.  Why not try this one thing, and bring a bit more passion and energy to the teams you lead?

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