In Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman reports on a study by the Center for Creative Leadership of top American and European leaders whose careers derailed, “the inability to build and lead a team was one of the most common reasons for failure.” He goes on to quote a highly successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist, “In the world today there’s plenty of technology, plenty of entrepreneurs, plenty of money, plenty of venture capital.  What’s in short supply is great teams.”

Good managers foster teamwork. Highly effective leaders build outstanding teams that multiply their effectiveness well beyond the sum of their members. When effectively organized and led, teams:

  • Multiply an organization’s agility and speed
  • Flatten vertical hierarchies and smash functional chimneys
  • Facilitate active participation in organization change efforts
  • Turn engagement rhetoric into reality
  • Expand jobs while elevating the sense of purpose and meaning they provide
  • Nurture a spirit of community, cooperation, and belonging
  • Build the commitment of those people who will ultimately make — or break — any organization change or improvement effort
  • Harness the creative energy and innovative ideas of everyone throughout the organization
  • Become the key unit of organizational learning through sharing collective experiences and multiplying brain power
  • Replace command and control discipline with far more powerful and lasting self and peer discipline
  • Improve communications and deepen understanding of the decisions being made regarding change and development
  • Foster better problem-solving and more thorough decision-making
  • Strengthen trust and interdependence

When teams are effectively led, the list of team outcomes has led to dramatic improvements in productivity, customer service, quality, process management, innovation, cost effectiveness, job satisfaction, employee engagement and retention, and financial performance.

What’s in a Name: Team Labels Don’t Create Teamwork

Many so-called teams aren’t. They’re groups, committees, boards, councils, or task forces. Managers are often confused by teamwork, team building, or team spirit. Groups can have a team spirit and show some teamwork. But few are a true team.

A great team definition is provided by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith in their book, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Team. 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 two highly experienced consultants then take their team definition a step further to describe a “high-performance team: This is 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 Trouble with Teams: What’s Your Type?

In his Fortune article, “The Trouble with Teams,” Brian Dumaine points to a common team trap, “When teams work, there’s nothing like them for turbocharging 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.”

The many group or team labels and types can be boiled down to two core types: 1. Operational teams that work in the business or process to produce, serve, or support, and 2. Improvement or project teams that work on the business or process to multiply its capabilities and effectiveness.

High-performing 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. Improvement or project management teams are usually cross-functional. They might be process management teams or temporary project teams formed to solve a specific process problem.

Yield of Teams: Deciding How to Decide

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

  1. Management commands and controls the workgroup (this is not a team) with some consultation and involvement.
  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 vision, values, and purpose, customers/partners, as well as its strategies and priorities. That’s the path to unproductive busy work and self-destructing teams.

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

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 team-based organization are skewed toward the self-management end of the 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.

In The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith write, “It is obvious that teams outperform individuals… teams will be the primary building blocks of company performance in the organization of the future… if there is new insight to be derived from the solid base of common sense about teams, it is the strange paradox of application. Many people simply do not apply what they already know about teams in any disciplined way, and thereby miss the team performance potential before them.”