Getting beyond the nonprofit plateau: start with a team performance tune-up

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Matt Warner

Matt Warner | President, Atlas Network

Good teams can hit a wall. Despite talented people and no shortage of hard work, sometimes the rate at which results have been eclipsing previous benchmarks starts to slow down. Sound familiar? I’m talking about the puzzling plateau that frustrates not because anything is really going wrong. It’s because the level of success has remained stubbornly bounded by some imaginary wall.

For personal performance, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith’s “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful,” provides a rich set of insights for individual introspection on this topic. But the message of this profound title seems well suited for several other contexts. For example, for teams, the question then is, so what are we supposed to do differently?

This can be tricky because when you are achieving and sustaining strong results change seems like a risk. Stakeholders begin offering explanations for the inevitability and immovability of the plateau.

“There are only so many talented people willing to do this kind of work. We don’t want them to burn out because we assume we should always be growing.”

“I think we’ve built out our niche and we’re meeting the need for what we do.”

“The fact is there just aren’t that many donors interested in this kind of work.”


There could be a lot of explanations for the status quo and, to be sure, more than one solution to getting beyond the plateau problem. Still, I think there is a useful exercise I recommend all teams tackle to question those assumptions and to see whether they’ve really done all the “upstream” work necessary to ensure downstream results keep growing and growing.

The Model

Call it the Definition and Diffusion Model of Teamwork. It’s a simple way to frame a conversation around a fairly straightforward question: How clearly have you really defined your work and how widely shared is that understanding across the team?

The vertical axis in the model represents how clearly defined your organization’s work is. The higher up your organization fits in the model, the more specificity and clarity you have around what you do, what you don’t do, what success is, and how you’re working to achieve it.

The horizontal axis represents how widely shared understanding is across the team. For example, if someone asked each member of your team the same set of questions about your organization’s purpose, processes, and goals, etc., how consistent would the answers be? This includes specific questions far beyond the basic topics of mission, vision, and taglines, though responses on those fundamentals can be revealing, too. Let’s take a look at the quadrants.

Assessing Definition and Diffusion

Quadrant One (Q1) represents cases where a team has very clearly defined what its purpose is, what success looks like, what its strategy is, how it is pursuing that strategy, the processes that will be observed to coordinate and work together, and where the boundaries are for determining the kind of opportunities that fit within the model.

Quadrant Two (Q2) represents cases where someone in the organization has clarity about the work, but not everyone is aware of it, understands it, or sees it the same way. Imagine, for example, a CEO who has a clear vision for how things should work but the team is not fully informed, uncertain about priorities, or can’t see their way out of some unresolved interdepartmental dysfunction. Or, perhaps, the day to day experiences of the “foot soldiers” in the organization have given them the skills and knowledge to do what’s needed to get things done, but leadership is focused elsewhere and underappreciates some of the key realities that govern that productivity.

Quadrant Three (Q3) represents cases where somehow the organization is functioning under a collection of patchwork efforts. In these cases, there tends to be a lot of ambiguity around what counts as “in mission” and programmatic design relies on a variety of separate strategies that may or may not relate to each other. It can feel very chaotic. This case is sometimes sustainable if there are superstar talents in the organization who can operate independently and who generate a lot of organic activity for the organization.

However, as a result, operational and supporting roles in the organization tend to require high levels of flexibility when it comes to job descriptions and tasks and there is often less chance for teams to move beyond the steepest parts of learning curves because there is little in the organization that is truly systematized and repeated.

Quadrant Four (Q4) represents cases where there is a lot of harmony on the team and built-in flexibility around teamwork that is well understood, but the organization tolerates a high level of ambiguity about its strategy and model. This is probably a fairly common case for successful organizations riding a plateau.

It’s important to emphasize that it’s not necessarily true that all organizations should aspire to be in the top right-hand corner of Quadrant One. This model is designed to reveal tradeoffs and to facilitate collaborative conversation and decision making in light of those tradeoffs. It does not imply, for example, that it is never appropriate to tolerate ambiguity around some topics. Instead, the goal of this exercise is to surface your team’s views about your organization and the way the team works together in the context of this framework and to be purposeful about identifying and achieving your own ideal.

Getting Started

To do this, I recommend a simple exercise. First, review the model and quadrants as a team and allow time for some clarifying questions and discussion to ensure you all understand the framework. Then, go around the room to see where in the model each person would place your organization within the model (you may want to have each person mark their spot privately on a piece of paper if early responses would likely influence subsequent responses. If so, a printable worksheet with some additional conversation prompts is available here).

Next, review and discuss those initial results. Do they cluster around a certain quadrant? Do you have multiple quadrants marked? Either way, you’ve already got some interesting results to discuss! Now, ask people to explain their placements. Those explanations should update or replace the sample descriptors I’ve provided for each quadrant with those that represent your organization’s own views.

Next, talk about where you as an organization would like to be in the model. Is everyone satisfied your current placement represents the ideal? Or is there appetite to move up and to the right? If there is, draw the “Progress Pathway” you and your team want to follow.

If you’ve identified a Progress Pathway that points up and to the right, regardless of your starting point, it’s time to start to discuss how to get there. Remember Goldsmith’s insight: What got you here, won’t get you there. So stay open to new ideas!

Making Progress

To the extent your Progress Pathway moves up the vertical axis, this involves making choices and commitments about what you do and what you are trying to accomplish. Since you are already achieving success it likely means choosing among a set of all “good” choices.

In fact, you may need to let go of some good things to focus more narrowly on achieving more on the most important things. This can be really hard to do. Start listing key areas where people see opportunity for increased focus.

You also may need to resolve ambiguities that represent longstanding disagreements among the leadership or the broader team. Living with those ambiguities to date may be preventing big efficiency gains in the way the team does its work and it may also be preventing new innovations in your methods as you continue to work in limbo.

Regardless, moving up means making choices and committing to those choices. So start brainstorming areas of ambiguity that could use some additional definition and then document all the suggested solutions you could commit to in an effort to resolve that ambiguity. Then, as a team, make some choices about what new level of specificity you’re going to commit to.

Often, making a less than perfect choice is far better than continuing to put the choice off for another day. Once you’ve made the choice as a team, stay committed until your system’s feedback loops have given you cause to pivot. Those feedback loops should be rooted in external validation, not internal opinions. Internal opinions are the reason you’ve delayed making these hard choices in the first place!

To the extent your Progress Pathway moves across the model on the horizontal axis, this means working with the people and processes necessary to achieve shared understanding and consistent execution. Efforts in this category rely heavily on internal communication, training, and refining systems for how the team works together in a collaborative way.

Those topics warrant their own conversations, but the key thing to remember is that if you have a good team, it’s the leader’s job to make sure the team fully understands the choices and commitments the organization has made. So the solution begins with the leader taking responsibility for this shared understanding and recognizing that true understanding is achieved through collaborative engagement, not a single communique. So start to get engaged in brainstorming conversations with the team about how to work better together and begin to identify areas where better communication and systems are needed.

Getting Beyond

When it comes to increasing definition and diffusion, remember this insight: “People support what they help create.” If you involve your team in the progress you want to make on the vertical axis, you’re already ahead of the game when it comes to making progress on the horizontal axis. This works not just because it tends to generate more enthusiasm for the new change, but because that type of engagement is one of the fastest ways to achieve true understanding across the group because it represents everyone’s contributions.

Bottom line: You have a successful team and you’re sustaining results. But I bet you can achieve even more. It’s time to get beyond today’s plateau to discover a new level of success. This simple Definition and Diffusion Model of Teamwork won’t give you everything you need to get there, but I bet it can get you off to a great start and, no doubt, you and your talented team can take it from there!

Download the Definition & Diffusion Model of Teamwork worksheet.

If you’re interested in engaging Matt Warner in providing consulting services for you and your team, apply here.