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What is exceptional performance?

High-performance teams are generally defined as teams that achieve exceptional levels of performance and that are deeply meaningful to the participants. What is meant by exceptional performance? How would we know the real thing we saw it? How do we detect false claims? What exactly is exceptional? How do we unpack that term? To learn more, go here.

Clearly, taking care of the basics comes first. The team needs to meet whatever agreed goals it set out to accomplish, and its clients must be satisfied. But exceptional performance requires something more. What is that something more?

New, surprising and/or valuable

One hypothesis is that exceptional performance concerns accomplishments that are new, surprising, and valuable. It is a team that does more than meet its original objectives. It needs to exceed them in some way that is new, surprising and valuable. Let’s have a look at each of these terms, which are overlapping and mutually supportive.1/

The terms are overlapping. Not all things that are new are surprising or valuable. Surprises sometimes have nothing to do with anything new or valuable. And value is usually more linked to tradition than to novelty. When the three things come together in a team performance, there is something that is unmistakably exceptional.


New doesn’t necessarily mean new in the whole history of human thought or experience, as with the invention of the atomic bomb or putting a man on the moon, or the first athlete to win eight gold medals at an Olympics.

More commonly “new” refers to something that is new to people within a particular context, but not necessarily to new to people in other contexts. Thus the performance may be new to the members of the team and/or to those connected in some way to the team, whether as clients or stakeholders or simple observers. It is something that those people perceive as significantly different from what they have perceived in the past.

The first African-American or the first woman US presidential nominee. It becomes something historic, something special.

The first time a fire brigade had a communications department, staffed by women in an all male world..

The performance may be something that is well-known to people in other contexts, but is different for the people in this context. Indeed, novelty often comes from presenting an idea that is familiar in one context to a new context where it is unfamiliar.

Objectively, it may be something that has been done in another context, in another firm, in another sector, in another country, in a different era even. But for the participants. It is new. It is a first.

It is something that hasn’t been done before. “This is the first.” Novelty adds to the feeling of something special occurring. Familiarity breeds contempt. The first transaction accomplished by a firm might be an exciting adventure. The 10,000th project can easily seem routine.

How do we go on being creative, and generate something new, time after time?


“Surprising” is the subjective counterpart of “new”. People can be surprised by something that isn’t “really” new. Equally, something new may not surprise them: a new kind of financial instrument might not surprise people, simply because they aren’t interested in the subject.

Something qualitatively different, new and unprecedented. Something that hasn’t been seen before. A first. A breakthrough. Something new. Qualitatively different.

One example was the first time a team from outside headquarters succeeded in launching a new product. Like many high-performance teams, the team set out with the attitude, “We’re going to show ‘em!” And they did.

Something quantitatively different and unexpected. This could be a statistical surprise - essentially an unlikely event

An example is a group of insurance salespeople who consistently performed at twice the productivity of any other similar group in the industry

Another example is a group of songwriters who generate an previously unattained level of hit songs.

Combinatorial surprise is the sort of surprise that one feels when an idea, once seen, seems almost like it was waiting to be discovered all along. Combinatorial surprise consists of an unfamiliar combination of familiar ideas.

An iPod is thus a familiar object – a musical player – that is put together in a new way with easy access to a large array of music.

A canonical example is poetry, which often communicates familiar thoughts in new combinations. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is not necessarily a new thought, but puts familiar words together in a combination that still seems fresh after more than four hundred years.

Competitive surprise: Overcoming impossible odds in defeating an unbeatable enemy: we don’t expect David will beat Goliath, but when he does, we are surprised.

An example is when the underdog defeats the prohibitive favorite.

Mission impossible: An idea which had seemed completely impossible, unimaginable, and yet it exists! It actually happened.
The four minute mile.
The first atom bomb.
Putting a man on the moon.

Transformational surprise, involving a change in the way we view the world. Physically nothing much may have changed. But forever afterwards, the world looks different. There are global accomplishments:

The Silent Spring changed the way looked at the environment. The world forever afterwards looks different.

Martin Luther King’s speech, “I have a dream,” helped change the way people in the US look at race relations.

Einstein discovers that light doesn’t necessarily travel in straight lines.

Galileo: the earth revolves around the sun rather than the sun revolving around the earth.

There are also more modest accomplishments:

A school team comes to see themselves as a bunch of winners, rather than as a bunch of losers.

A group of aspiring writers teach each other to write; they realize they can, after all, do it.


Valuable has so many meanings that we couldn't really exhaustively list them. The list would include things that useful, have financial worth, or are agreeable or beautiful. What is valuable to one group may be worthless to another. It would seem that it need to

Meet the needs of a significant number of people.

It has no countervailing negative effects, such as collateral damage, like hurting other teams or undermining the collaborative environment of the organization. i.e. achieving something at the expense of someone else.

Examples might include

An extraordinary number of hit songs – a lot of people find the songs exciting, melodious and moving and satisfying.
An organization that has the possibility of a different future
An iPod that sells well and generates much pleasure for many people.
An international student organization that generates unexpected benefits for its members.
A youth group that puts on a show that is meaningful to many.

Sporting teams that win the championship: is this valuable? It pleases the spectators of fans of this team. Or is it just another year, another season, another championship? Is there some aspect of courage, of overcoming adversity, of exceptional record, that makes it stand out as something exceptional.

The best ways to prevent exceptional performance

Phil Wilson writes that the best way to discourage creativity of all three kinds is "to slap people down when they try to do something new".1/ It’s bad enough to say "That's wrong". It’s even worse to say "That's stupid" and even worse, "You’re stupid". These putdowns tend to destroy people's ability to freely think in a creative, daring way. The problem in such exchanges is not so much that learning is limited or non-existent. It poisons the atmosphere not only for the protagonists but also for others in the environment, creating a toxic workspace, in which it feels risky for anyone to say or do anything unusual, in case a new personal attack might break out at any moment.

_______________________________________________________________________________ 1. Those key words - new, surprising, and valuable – are discussed in a fascinating A fascinating post entitled “Creativity: a scientific viewpoint” by Phil Wilson based on a lecture given by Margaret Boden Research Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Sussex.

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