How do we measure performance? Normally there is an outcome measure, at a gross level this might be the final score in a match, or points from a judge. However, when you ask, “how is performance created?” you need to dive deeper to understand where it comes from.

In a complex environment, the performance of the whole is dependent less on the output of each individual component, as the interactions between these components.

A car, for example, is complicated as opposed to complex. You can use the best components and improve performance, and if the car breaks down, we can seek out the failed component, replace it and get back on the road again.

Ask that car to drive across a major city like London however, and it enters a complex system.  Performance of the car (time from departure to destination) isn’t decided by exactly how fast the car is (say a Ferrari vs Fiat), but rather the interaction of that car in the city. Progress is dictated by the other vehicles, the weather, the pedestrians and cyclists, road works, traffic signals, what time of day it is, and many other factors.

Our hypothetical car is also simultaneously impacting the performance of all of these other factors as well, which in turn impact its own performance in a continuous loop. Whenever I am making slow progress on a journey, I try to remind myself, “I’m not in traffic, I am traffic!”

Performance of teams of people is similarly complex to the traffic system of a city. The performance of the group emerges from the interdependence of the members, rather than of the individual performances alone.

When leading in complexity therefore, we need to be mindful that performance emerges from the spaces between the members of the team. It is this space that, as leaders, we must cultivate and nurture.

In 2012 Google embarked on a large study to try and discover what made a successful team within their organisation.  They called it Project Aristotle ( in homage to the Greek philosopher and his famous quote.  They studied 180 teams from across the business and looked many combinations of factors (e.g. personality traits, emotional intelligence, demographics and skills sets of team members) that they hoped would indicate levels of learning and performance.

Whichever way they crunched the data (, they could find no pattern as to what would bring success. Some of the factors that did not influence team success intuitively sounds like items that would be important when trying to build a successful team…

  • Location of team mates
  • Consensus driven decision making
  • Extroversion of members
  • Individual performance of team members
  • Workload size
  • Seniority
  • Team size
  • Amount of time spent working at Google

Eventually the researchers looked away from the hard skills and instead looked at interactions between team members, driven by the work of Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School (  Professor Edmondson’s research has also studied effective teams and the work at Google confirmed her theories. The number one factor that will describe team success is termed psychological safety, which Edmondson describes as…

“a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking… a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,” (1)

A psychologically safe environment is one on which recognises the space between the components of the complex system is where the magic happens and works to ensure that all members of the team can lean into said space.

We need all members of the team to understand that although this space is uncertain from it, performance will emerge.

In their book “Radical Uncertainty” John Kay and Mervyn King describe uncertainty as follows…

“Uncertainty is the result of our incomplete knowledge of the world, or about the connection between our present actions and their future outcomes.”

In a complex world, we cannot see the connection between our decisions and their future impact, we only make sense of them with hindsight. As the author Robert Louis Stevenson said…

“The worst historian has a clearer view of the period he studies than the best of us can hope to form of that in which we live. The obscurest epoch is to-day.”

However, there is evidence to suggest that better predictions and decision making come from cultures that…

“harness the power of collectives and encourage diverse opinions, perspectives and collaborative teamwork,” (2)

This was based on the work of Philip Tetlock and Barbara Walters described in a previous post (Foxes and Hedgehogs). Foxes will recognise that they do not have a complete perspective and therefore not all of the answers. They will lean into the space between themselves and others, inviting their perspective and collaboration, seeking to co-create solutions for the best possible outcome.

To develop a climate in which Foxes can flourish, we must create psychologically safe environments that protect the space between the members of our teams as sacred and encourage them to lean into these spaces to collaborate and provide diverse perspectives. Edmondson (1) describes it as…

“a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

This process will take some modelling from us as leaders. If we cannot show up, be true to ourselves and honestly lean into the space between us, those we lead, and our teammates, then we can never hope to engage others to do the same. If we cannot do this effectively, we may struggle to create a high performing environment.

Further thinking

  • When was the last time you recognised your restricted view of the world to your team?
  • Do you always feel able to speak up and share your perspectives?
  • How do you invite your team members to provide their perspectives with you and their peers?
  • How can you create a climate of collective curiosity amongst your team?
  • How are you encouraging co-creation of solutions to problems?
  1. Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly44(2), 350-383.
  2. Wilson, P.J., Kiely, J. Developing Decision-Making Expertise in Professional Sports Staff: What We Can Learn from the Good Judgement Project. Sports Med – Open9, 100 (2023)