If the organization is to perform, it must be organized as a team.
– Peter Drucker

Managers’ growing understanding of the power of a team-based organization has created an explosion of teams. We’re now seeing a profusion of high-involvement teams, high-performance teams, corrective action teams, service and quality improvement teams, project teams, task forces, steering councils, process management and improvement teams, problem solving teams, cross-functional teams, departmental teams, work teams, regional or branch teams, self-directed and self-managed teams, semi-autonomous teams…to name just a few.

But many so-called teams aren’t. They’re groups, committees, task forces, or councils. Managers are often confused by teamwork, “teaminess”, or team spirit. Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith provide a good definition of a team in their book The Wisdom of Teams. They define a real team as “a small number of people with complimentary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goals, and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” (their emphasis).

The authors then take their team definition a step further to describe a high-performance team: “This a group that meets all the conditions of real teams, and has members who are also deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success. That commitment usually transcends the team. The high-performance team significantly outperforms all other like teams, and outperforms all reasonable expectations given its membership (their emphasis).”

The Whats and Hows of Teams

When teams work, there’s nothing like them for turbo charging productivity. . . forget all the swooning over teams for a moment. Listen carefully and you’ll sense a growing unease, a worry that these things are more hassle than their fans let on — that they might even turn around and bite you. . . the most common trouble with teams: Many companies rush out and form the wrong kind for the job.
– Brian Dumaine, “The Trouble with Teams”, Fortune

The dozens of team labels and types can be boiled down to two core types: operational teams that work in the business or process and improvement teams that work on the business or process to increase its capabilities and effectiveness. Effective operational teams are a hybrid of both types. They work in the process or business to meet production or service goals while also working on the process or business to expand its performance potential.

Besides clarifying what a team’s purpose and role is, the other important management decision is how it will operate. The team management choices can be plotted on a three-point continuum:

  1. Management commands and controls the work group, with some consultation and involvement (this is not a team).
  2. Management roles and responsibilities (such as scheduling, planning, meeting facilitation, and establishing measures) are shared between team members and the team leader.
  3. The team is autonomous and manages itself.

    The third point on the continuum talks to self-managed rather than self-directed teams. That’s because teams do need direction from the rest of the organization. That direction usually comes from a manager who’s guiding and coordinating their activities or a management team they report to.

    Self-directed teams can too easily become self-serving teams. Without clear guidance and direction, their activities can drift away from the organization’s overarching Focus and Context (vision, values, and purpose), its customers/partners, as well as its performance and improvement goals (strategic imperatives). That’s the path to unproductive busywork and self-destructing teams.

    Looking at Katzenbach and Smith’s description of real and high-performance teams, only Shared and Self Management fit their definitions. This is consistent with a growing body of research and our own experiences. A team’s commitment and performance increases exponentially with the degree of power, control, and ownership they feel they have (in their own — not management’s — perception of their work).

  4. This chart shows the What-How choices that need to be made with every team. We can use it to plot each team’s role or purpose and how it will be managed. It’s not unusual for an organization to have a wide variety of teams that could fit within various points on this chart. But a large proportion of teams in a highly effective organization are skewed toward the Self Management end of the How continuum. These organizations also have a good balance of teams focused on working in the business or process as well as on the business or process.