The Wisdom of Teams
Jon R. Katzenbach & Douglas K. Smith, Harvard Business School
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.
- 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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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,
- 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
- 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
- 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
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(C) 1996-2002 Donald J. Bodwell. All rights reserved.