Teeming With Teams

Organizations abound with teams. And no other area of organizational life, or shall we say recurring corporate chagrin, gets nearly as much attention in the literature as teams: functioning, malfunctioning, well formed, deformed, performance-enhancing or productivity-depleting.

A critical insight honored more in the breach than in the observance is that a collection of people is not by itself a “team”. A committee is not a team. An amalgam of individuals reporting to the same leader is not a team. It’s a team if they have to deliver something together, something impossible to deliver without some collaboration, cooperation and interaction. And if that performance merits it, then, and only then, should a team be formed, built, developed and sustained.

Sometimes groups act destructively and the solution to the problem is touted as “team building”. It’s not. What they need is perhaps communication coaching, perhaps they need to be held accountable for acts inimical to the goals of others. Perhaps they have to learn to challenge constructively. Perhaps a culture of one-upsmanship has to be dethroned. A team however does not necessarily have to be built.

When a team IS needed, we have to clarify what they are to do, and what they are accountable for.  Members then need to understand the degree of cooperation, consultation and co-creation required. I hasten to add, the political realities of most companies, and the intrinsic nature of innovation no less, argue for a measure of consultation and co-creation (in the sense of gathering early feedback re solutions we are prototyping or testing) regardless of whether a full-fledged team is needed.  But while this is wise anyway, relative to teams it has to be mandated. A team has, by definition, collective responsibility.

If indeed a team is needed, then teams have to be adept at two things. First, helping individuals deliver their contribution to the team. In other words, the team can’t succeed if the individuals that make up the team, don’t. And the quicker everyone is made to understand this palpably and incontestably, the better. Secondly, they have to learn how to interact effectively together to solve problems, or to execute decisions, or whatever the work is they have been assembled to deliver. A team can be helpful but inept. Or a team can be effective but siphon off unnecessary energy, time, goodwill and more.

Teams therefore need to provide real-time feedback to members and to the team as a whole. This can only be delivered with a true helping orientation and a true performance commitment. When these are there, we will inquire first and conclude second, invite first and challenge second, explore first and prescribe second. Teams can’t leave performance up in the air, it has to be non-negotiable. Teams have to challenge each  member for their best, individually and collectively. But teams have to do this in the spirit of encouragement and possibility, not cross-examination and undermining. Teams by definition are committed to the success of each member as well as the team at large.

Make sure therefore that we deploy teams only when we need to. And then, let’s make sure teams deliver both mutual helpfulness and grow in effectiveness to perform key tasks of strategic value to the organization. Anyone who impedes that has to be tackled. Teams that fail in this, can’t be allowed to malinger. They must be re-engineered, reformed, or dismantled and replaced. Teams that show these twin propensities, deserve all the coaching and development and support — not to mention the kudos — we can offer.

Teams in short have to provide a multiplier to individual talent. This is hard, onerous work. The only impetus powerful enough to drive this forward is real strategic work that needs doing, which commands the best of our best, and can’t be done without people operating AND cooperating with excellence…delivering consistently in concert.