Getting Teams Right

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Teams are rapidly becoming the primary organizational building block for getting work done. And as teams take center stage, the number of books, formulas, lists and how-tos about teams available grows exponentially. Here is a summary of the most common issues with which a team sponsor should be concerned.

Not every group is a team.

Calling a loosely affiliated group of people working on a project or issue a team does not make it one. Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith published their criteria in what is still the best text in the field, “The Wisdom of Teams” (Harvard Business School Press, 1993). Katzenbach and Smith describe a team as a group of people who form to complete a specific project.

In a team, the outcome of the project and success of the team are more important than any member’s view of how the work gets done. Team members are fiercely dedicated to the entire team’s success — even that of the members they may not like.

Teams also share a passion for the outcome of the work and a sincere desire to see the charter fulfilled. Think of the working groups at your business and ask yourself how many of their members are more committed to the team’s success than their own?

Teams develop trust and focus on results.

Patrick Lencioni provides us with a more recent framework for teams in his best-selling “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” (Jossey-Bass, 2002). Lencioni introduces a model for team success based fundamentally on trust.

Teams that trust each other can disagree with less political positioning and personal finger-pointing. The resulting ability to discuss and debate provides richer thinking about solutions and supports the team to pursue the ideas into execution. Teams that cannot debate constructively very quickly become toxic environments.

Replace team-building with team development.

My issue with team-building is that often the experience and learning are not brought back to the office. Ropes courses and many of the other experiential activities we see on these retreats are not bad things to do. They can build camaraderie and common experience. But everyone knows that they are artificially created environments, making it easy to dismiss them later.

Or as one team member recently commented, “Yeah, we did a ropes course and it was cool. And no, I did not think that they were going to let me fall off that table. But just because he did not step back and let me crack my skull does not mean I can trust Marc to make his deadlines.”

Instead, consider integrating developmental activities with real team working meetings.

One of my client teams, a leadership team at a health care organization, was considering a new line of business requiring offshore partnerships and a logistics capacity the company did not currently have. The team had scheduled half a day to make the decision at its quarterly offsite.

But the team members clearly deadlocked as they lined up roughly equally on the pro and con side. We put the debate on hold while I introduced a tool for exploring contentious issues and moving toward consensus. It did not have the drama of a “trust fall” or parachuting (which they had done last year), but they got to practice the skill together immediately and in two hours had reached a decision they could all endorse.

And they now have a new tool to use the next time they are divided on a major issue.

Katzenbach says this really well: “Teams do not improve with team-building. They improve by learning to do the work of the team more effectively.”

Like most high-performance engines, teams require some maintenance and attention. But a team operating at peak performance is the very definition of synergy. It provides far more value than the individual members can on their own. 

I. Barry Goldberg is an executive and leadership coach and founder of Entelechy Partners. You can reach him at [email protected].