The discipline of teams

Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith say that if managers want to make better decisions about teams, they must be clear about what a team is. They define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

That definition sets down the discipline that teams must share to be effective.

Katzenbach and Smith discuss the four elements – common commitment and purpose, performance goals, complementary skills, and mutual accountability – that make teams function. They also classify teams into three varieties – teams that recommend things, teams that make or do things, and teams that run things – and describe how each type faces different challenges.

For managers to make better decisions about whether, when, or how to encourage and use teams, it is important to be more precise about what a team is and what it isn’t. Many executives advocate teamwork. Teamwork represents a set of values that encourage listening and responding constructively to views expressed by others, giving others the benefit of the doubt, providing support, and recognizing the interests and achievements of others.

Such values help teams perform, and they also promote individual performance as well as the performance an entire organization. But teamwork values by themselves are not exclusive to teams, nor are they enough to ensure team performance.

Nor is a team just any group working together. Committees, councils, and task forces are not necessarily teams. Groups do not become teams simply because that is what someone calls them. The entire workforce of any large and complex organization is never a team, the authors emphasize.

To understand how teams deliver extra performance, we must distinguish between teams and other forms of working groups. That distinction turns on performance results. A working group’s performance is a function of what its members do as individuals. A team’s performance includes both individual results and what Katzenbach and Smith call “collective work products.” A collective work product is what two or more members must work on together, such as interviews, surveys, or experiments. Whatever it is, a collective work product reflects the joint, real contribution of team members.

Working groups are both prevalent and effective in large organis ations where individual accountability is most important. The best working groups come together to share information, perspectives, and insights; to make decisions that help each person to do his or her job better; and to reinforce individual performance standards.

But the focus is always on individual goals and accountabilities. Working-group members don’t take responsibility for results other than their own. Nor do they try to develop incremental performance contributions requiring the combined work of two or more members.

Teams differ fundamentally from working groups because they require both individual and mutual accountability. Teams rely on more than group discussion, debate, and decision, on more than sharing information and best-practice performance standards.

Teams produce discrete work products through their joint contributions of their members. This is what makes possible performance levels greater than the sum of all the individual bests of team members. Simply stated, a team is more than the sum of its parts.

The first step in developing a disciplined approach to team management is to think about teams as discrete units of performance and not just as positive sets of values. The essence of a team is common commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful unit of collective performance.

This kind of commitment requires a purpose in which team members can believe. Credible team purposes have an element related to winning, being first, or being on the cutting edge. Teams develop direction, momentum, and commitment by working to shape a meaningful purpose.

Most successful teams shape their purpose in response to a demand or opportunity put in their way by higher management. This helps teams get started by broadly framing the company’s performance expectation. Management is responsible for clarifying the charter, rationale, and performance challenge for the team, but management must leave enough flexibility for the team to develop commitment around its own spin on that purpose, set specific goals, timing, and approach.

The best teams invest a tremendous amount of time and effort exploring, shaping, and agreeing on a purpose that belongs to them both collectively and individually. This “purposing” activity continues throughout the life of the team. By contrast, failed teams rarely develop a common purpose. For whatever reason – an insufficient focus on performance, lack of effort, poor leadership – they do not coalesce around a challenging aspiration.

The best teams also translate their common purpose into specific performance goals. Indeed, if a team fails to establish specific performance goals or if those goals do not relate directly to the team’s overall purpose, team members become confused, pull apart, and revert to mediocre performance.

On the contrary, when purposes and goals build on one another and are combined with team commitment, they become a powerful engine for performance. Transforming broad directives into specific and measurable performance goals is the surest first step for a team trying to shape a purpose meaningful to its members.

The combination of purpose and specific goals is essential to performance. Each depends on the other to remain relevant and vital. Clear performance goals help a team keep track of progress and hold itself accountable; the broader, even nobler, aspirations in a team’s purpose supply both meaning and emotional energy.

Usually, effective teams have members ranging between two and 25 people; but frequently the majority number less than ten. Small size is admittedly more of a pragmatic guide than an absolute necessity for success.

A large number of people can theoretically become a team, but big groups are more likely to break into sub-teams rather than function as a single unit. This is because large numbers of people have trouble interacting constructively as a group, much less doing real work together. Large groups also face logistical issues, such as finding enough physical space and time to meet.

Moreover, they confront more complex constraints, like crowd or herd behaviors, which prevent intense sharing of viewpoints needed to build a team. As a result, when they try to develop a common purpose, they usually produce only superficial “missions” and well meaning intentions that cannot be translated into concrete objectives.

Technical or Functional Expertise. It would make little sense for a product development group to include only marketers or engineers. This team is less likely to succeed than that with complementary skills of both.

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills. Teams must be able to identify the problems and opportunities they face, evaluate the options they have for moving forward, and then make necessary trade-offs and decisions about how to proceed.

Interpersonal Skills. Common understanding and purpose cannot arise without effective communication and constructive conflict, which in turn depend on interpersonal skills. These skills include risk taking, helpful criticism, objectivity, active listening, giving benefit of the doubt, and recognizing the interests and achievements of others.

The discipline of teams outlined above is critical to the success of all teams. Yet, the authors believe that, it is useful to go one step further. Most teams can be classified in one or three ways: teams that recommend things; teams that make or do things; and teams that run things. Each type faces a characteristic set of challenges.

Teams That Recommend Things. These teams include task forces, project groups, quality, or safety groups asked to study and solve particular problems. Teams that recommend things almost always have predetermined completion dates. Two critical issues are unique to such teams: getting off to a fast and constructive start and dealing with the ultimate handoff that is required to get recommendations implemented.

Teams That Make or Do Things. These teams include people at or near the front lines who are responsible for doing the basic manufacturing, development, operations, marketing, sales, service, and other value-adding activities of a business. These teams tend to have no set completion dates because their activities are ongoing.

Teams That Run Things. Whether it is in charge of thousands of people or just a handful, as long as the group oversees some business, ongoing program, or significant functional activity, it is a team that runs things. The main issue these teams face is determining whether a real team approach is the right one.

In conclusion, every company faces specific challenges for which teams are the most practical and powerful vehicle at top management’s disposal. The critical role for senior managers, therefore, is to worry about company performance and the kinds of teams that can deliver it. This means top management must recognize a team’s unique potential to deliver results, deploy teams strategically when they are the best tools for the job, and foster the basic discipline of teams that will make them effective. By so doing, top management creates the kind of environment that enables team as well as individual and organizational performance.

By Captain Sam Addaih (Rtd)

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