Coaching HPT Teams Team Concepts Return to Main Page The Wisdom of Teams

Jon R. Katzenbach & Douglas K. Smith, Harvard Business School Press, 1993

Lessons we have learned

  • Significant performance challenges energize teams regardless of where they are in an organization. No team arises without a performance challenge that is meaningful to those involved. A common set of demanding performance goals that a group considers important to achieve will lead, most of the time, to both performance and team.. Performance, however, is the primary objective while a team remains the means, not the end.
  • Organizational leaders can foster team performance best by building a strong performance ethic rather than by establishing a team-promoting environment alone.
  • Biases toward individualism exist but need not get in the way of team performance. Real teams always find ways for each individual to contribute and thereby gain distinction. Indeed, when harnessed to a common team purpose and goals, our need to distinguish ourselves as individuals becomes a powerful engine for team performance.
  • Discipline-both within the team and across the organization-creates the conditions for team performance. For organizational leaders, this entails making clear and consistent demands that reflect the needs of customers, shareholders, and employees, and then holding themselves and the organization relentlessly accountable.

Team Basics

  • Small enough in number. Can convene and communicate easily and frequently. Discussions are open and interactive for all members. Each member understands the other's roles and skills.
  • All three categories of skills are either actually or potentially represented across the membership (functional/technical, problem-solving/decision-making, and interpersonal). Each member has the potential in all three categories to advance his or her skills to the level required by the team's purpose and goals.
  • The team's purpose constitutes a broader, deeper aspiration than just near term goals. All team members understand and articulate the purpose the same way. Members define the purpose vigorously in discussion with outsiders. Members frequently refer to the purpose and explore its implications. The purpose contains themes that are particularly meaningful and memorable. Members feel the purpose is important, if not exciting.
  • There are team goals versus broader organizational goals versus just one individual's goals. Goals are clear, simple, and measurable. If they are not measurable, can their achievement be determined? Goals are realistic as well as ambitious.
  • The approach is concrete, clear, and really understood and agreed to by everybody. It requires all members to contribute equivalent amounts of real work. It provides for open interaction, fact-based problem solving, and result-based evaluation. The approach provides for modification and improvement over time. Fresh input and perspective is systematically sought and added, for example, through information and analysis, new members, and sponsors.
  • There is a sense of mutual accountability.

The team performance curve

The Working Group: This is a group for which there is no significant incremental performance need or opportunity the would require it to become a team. The members interact primarily to share information, best practices, or perspectives and to make decisions to help each individual perform within his or her area of responsibility.

Pseudo-team: This is a group for which their could be a significant, incremental performance need or opportunity, but it has not focused on collective performance and is not really trying to achieve it. It has no interest in shaping a common purpose or set of performance goals, even though it may call itself a team. Pseudo teams are the weakest of all groups in terms of performance impact.

Potential Team: This is a group for which there s a significant, incremental performance need, and that really is trying to improve its performance impact. Typically, however, it requires more clarity about purpose, goals or work-products and more discipline in hammering out a common working approach. It has not yet established collective accountability.

Real Team: This is a small number of people with complementary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goals, and working approach for which the hold themselves mutually accountable.

High Performance Team: This is a group that meets all the conditions of real teams, and has members who are also deeply committed to each other'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.

Common Approaches to Building Team Performance

  • Establish urgency and direction. All team members need to believe the team has urgent and worthwhile purpose, and they want to know what the expectations are. Indeed, the more urgent and meaningful the rationale, the more likely it is that a real team will emerge. The best team charters are clear enough to indicate performance expectations, but flexible enough to allow teams to shape their own purpose, goals, and approach.
  • Select members based on skill and skill potential, not personalities. Teams must have the complementary skills needed to do their job . Three categories of skills are relevant: 1) technical and functional, 2) problem-solving, and 3) interpersonal. The key issue for potential teams is striking the right balance between members who already possess the needed skill levels versus developing the skill levels after the team gets started.
  • Pay particular attention to first meetings and actions. Initial impressions always mean a great deal. When potential teams firs gather, everyone alertly monitors the signals given by others to confirm, suspend, or dispel going-in assumptions and concerns. They particularly pay attention to those in authority: The team leader and any executives who set up, oversee, or otherwise influence the team. And, as always, what such leaders do is more important than what they say.
  • Set some clear rules of behavior. All real teams develop rules of conduct to help them achieve their purpose and performance goals. The most critical early rules pertain to attendance (for example: "no interruptions to take phone calls"), discussion-"no sacred cows", confidentiality, analytic approach-facts are friendly, end-product orientations-everyone gets assignments and does them, constructive confrontation-no finger pointing, and often the most important-everyone does real work.
  • Set and seize upon a few immediate performance-oriented tasks and goals. Most teams trace their advancement to key performance-oriented events that forge them together. Potential teams can set such events in motion by immediately establishing a few challenging yet achievable goals that can be reached early on.
  • Challenge the group regularly with fresh facts and information. New information causes a potential team to redefine and enrich its understanding of the performance challenge, thereby helping the team shape a common purpose, set clearer goals, and improve on its common approach.
  • Spend lots of time together. Common sense tells us that teams must spend a lot of time together, especially as the beginning. Yet potential teams often fail to do so. The time spent together must be both scheduled and unscheduled. Indeed, creative insights as well as personal bonding require impromptu and casual interactions just as much as analyzing spreadsheets, interviewing customers, competitor, or fellow employees, and constantly debating issues.
  • Exploit the power of positive feedback, recognition, and reward. Positive reinforcement works as well in a team context as elsewhere. "Giving out gold stars" helps to shape new behaviors critical to team performance. If people in the group, for example, are alert to a shy person's initial efforts to speak up and contribute, they can give him or her the positive reinforcement that encourages continued contributions

Six Things Necessary to Good Team Leadership

  • Keep the purpose, goals, and approach relevant and meaningful. All teams must shape their own common purpose, performance goals and approach. While a leader must be a full working member of the team who can and should contribute to these, he or she also stands apart from the team by virtue of his or her selection as leader. Teams expect their leader to use that perspective and distance to help the teams clarify and commit to their mission, goals, and approach.
  • Build commitment and confidence. Team leaders should work to build the commitment and confidence of each individual as well as the team as a whole.
  • Strengthen the mix and level of skills. Effective team leaders are vigilant about skills. Their goal is clear: ultimately, the flexible and top-performing teams consist of people with all the technical, functional, problem-solving, decision-making, interpersonal, and teamwork skills the team needs to perform. To get there, team leaders encourage people to take the risks needed for growth and development. They also continually challenge team members by shifting assignments and role patterns.
  • Manage relationships with outsiders, including removing obstacles. Team leaders are expected, by people outside as well as inside the team to manage much of the team's contacts and relationships with the rest of the organization. This calls on team leaders to communicate effectively the team's purpose, goals, and approach to anyone who might help or hinder it. They also must have the courage to intercede on the team's behalf when obstacles that might cripple or demoralize the team get placed in their way.
  • Create opportunities for others. Team performance is not possible if the leader grabs all the best opportunities, assignments, and credit. Indeed, the crux of the leader's challenge is to provide performance opportunities to the team and the people on it.
  • Do real work. Everyone on a real team, including the leader, does real work in roughly equivalent amounts. Team leaders do have a certain distance from the team by virtue of their position, but they do not use that distance "just to sit back and make decision." Team leaders must contribute in whatever way the team needs, just like any other member. Moreover, team leaders do not delegate the nasty jobs to others. Where personal risks are high or "dirty work" is required, the team leader should step forward.

Two Kinds of Teams

  • Teams that recommend things. These teams include task forces, project groups, and audit, quality, or safety groups asked to study and solve particular problems. Unlike most teams that run, make, or do things, teams that recommend things typically have predetermined completion dates, although a few, like plant level safety teams, might be ongoing. If top management asks such a group to address issues of performance as opposed to administration(e.g. organizing the annual sales conference), then almost by definition the group "matters". Accordingly, top managers can best manage the time and attention they need to devote to such teams by limiting how many they set up.

    The two critical issues unique to teams that recommend things are getting off to a fast and constructive star, and dealing with the inevitable "hand-off" required to get their recommendations implemented. The key to getting potential teams that recommend things off to the right start lies in the clarity of their charter and composition of their membership. The more involvement task force members have in actually implementing their own recommendations, the more likely they are to get implemented. However, to the extent that people outside the task force will carry the load of implementation, top management can boost the performance opportunity by ensuring that those people get involved as early as possible-well before the recommendations are finalized.
  • Teams that make or do things These teams include people at or near the front lines who are responsible for doing the basic research, development, operations, marketing, sales, service, and other value-adding activities of the business. With some exceptions like new product development or process design teams, such teams tend to have no set completion dates.

Teams and High Performance Organization

Focusing on both performance and the teams that deliver it will materially increase top management's prospects of leading their companies to become high performance organizations than about the specific organizational forms and management approaches that will support them. No one argues over the value of such company; attributes as being customer-driven, "informated", "focused on total quality", and having "empowered work forces" that "continuously improve and innovate." Behind these lie a set of six characteristics only one of which-balanced performance results-is ever overlooked in discussion of where the best companies are headed. The six include:

  • Balanced performance results. Companies that consistently outperform the competition over an extended period, say ten year, are high performance organizations-regardless of how they get there. Proven high performers are all well known for their balanced performance aspirations. They are relentless in delivering superior results to employees, customers, and shareholders.
  • Clear, challenging aspirations. Whether it goes under the name of "vision," "mission," "strategic intent," or "directional intensity," the company's purpose must reflect clear and challenging aspirations that will benefit all of its key constituencies. Too many vision statements are just that: a written attempt by top management to meet the well-accepted "vision requirement." They may be read by all and may even be immortalized in plaques on the wall, but they have no real emotional meaning to people down the line whose behaviors and values they are supposed to influence. The purpose, meaning, and performance implications of visions must communicate, to all who matter, that they will benefit both rationally and emotionally from the company's success.
  • Committed and focused leadership. High performance organizations follow leaders who themselves almost evangelical pursuit of performance. Through their time, attention, and other symbolic behavior, such leaders express a constant focus on where the company is headed and an unrelenting dedication to the communication, involvement, measurement, and experimentation required to get there.
  • An energized work force dedicated to productivity and learning. The "learning," "adaptive," "self-directed," and "evergreen" characteristics of high performance organizations depend on a critical mass of people who are turned on to winning as well as to the change that winning requires. Performance in a constantly changing world demands change. And change, in turn, must be understood and teated before it can be mastered. The people of the organization must share an eagerness to ask questions, to experiment with new approaches, to learn from results, and to take responsibility for making changes happen.
  • Skill-based sources of competitive advantage. Companies should always seek and make best us of intrinsically valuable assets like access to natural resources, control over powerful distribution channels, strong brand names, and patents and other government licenses. But core-skills invariably depend on team skills. To re-engineer work flows based on customer needs, for example, requires teams that integrate across functional boundaries. Whenever adding value depends on the real-time blending of multiple skills, experiences, and judgments, a team performance challenge exists. And teams provide an excellent crucible for on-the-job skill development.
  • Open communications and knowledge management. Knowledge is a scarce and important factor of production. Information technology is critical to high performance. But IT includes the shared values and behavioral norms that foster open communications and knowledge management. In information era organizations that are not guards-only guides.

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Copyright (C) 1996-2002 Donald J. Bodwell. All rights reserved.