What is a Team?

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HR.com’s recent interview with Jon R. Katzenbach piqued my interest. Katzenbach wrote The Wisdom of Teams, among others. He was probably interviewed to shill his new book, but the idea of teams is one that intriguing.

Do teams work? is really my question.

Katzenbach admits that the team approach to work is tricky in implmentation:

What we have learned since 1993 is that the basics for team performance really do make a difference. They haven’t changed. We’ve learned that the discipline required is much harder to apply than it is to describe.

Most theorists end up saying this. In the later editions of Fifth Discipline, Senge admits that implementations fail 50% of the time. Considering the effort put into Learning Organization efforts, a 50% failure rate seems a bit high. You can blame it on several factors, but most experts seem to go with “they didn’t try hard enough”. Senge thought of better reasons than that, but many of his disciples seemed so enamored of the Learning Organization that only sin and lack of faith could explain a failure.

“Teams”, as a management methodology, faces similar numbers. Katzenback, in this interview, describes what you need for team to succeed. Management support does not suffice: you must also have a problem that teams can solve better than individuals. Katzenbach also describes individual-led teams, where one person drives the work. Jaquesians might describe many of these as Assisted Direct Output, where a single individual’s work is supported by others. For example, a technical consultant brings his team in with him to solve a problem in a pain oven, but the consultant drives the work and the assistants follow his lead and are accountable to him.

Just because you have a group of people, Katzenbach observes, you don’t know if you have a team.

If you want to know whether or not you are functioning as a real team, you ask yourself if everyone holds themselves mutually accountable for the purpose and the goals…. You can always tell you are in a team situation by the degree to which they are holding each other accountable.

Later, he says that

Team performance doesn’t have much to do with how teams at the top perform. It has more to do with how clearly the performance challenges are spelled out and how clearly people are disciplined about attacking those.

Both describe a form of accountability. The first describes whether or not your team has “gelled” to the point of member driving each other to greater performance. Think of great basketball teams: the team members don’t allow each other to slack on the court; they must play every game to the full. But a team with inner-accountability does not mean that there are not leaders within the team, nor does it mean that there the team is not individual led. An led team can feel pressure not to let the leader down, and therefore pressure each other to top performance.

The second is what I find interesting. Katzenbach seems to describe how the manager of the team — the person who in the end is accountable to management, owners or the board — sets context for the team’s work. Properly set context includes spellling out the performance challenges. A team needs a Real Boss as much as an individual does.

On the characteristics of top leaders who use team leadership well:

The third characteristic is recognizing that some people can never lead a team but many people can, if you help them understand what their choices are and the implications of those choices.

In other words, as long as a Real Boss sets context for the team leader, everything is hunky-dory.

Nope, you don’t need a boss at all.

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