A Scientific Approach to Leadership
and Management Development

"Leadership Matters"
— A Management Newsletter —

Teamwork and the Common End

A recent Wall Street Journal article cited the fact that the average NBA team uses nearly 500 different player combinations over the course of a professional basketball season. Using pattern-detecting software, team executives are analyzing these combinations to identify their most effective teams.

From the sports team locker room to the company conference room, the concept of teamwork has never been more frequently cited as a factor for success — and understanding the elements that determine team success has never been more critical.

Getting a group of people together is the easy part. Creating a team and leading the team to achieve results takes planning, analysis and answers to fundamental questions: Are there certain jobs that are more effectively accomplished by teams than by individuals? What does the team need to accomplish? If the work is best accomplished by a team, how do I bring people together and keep them focused on achieving results? How do I best ensure their success?

"Understanding the factors that determine team success has never been more critical."

Consider the following company scenario: Eight people meet to determine if the company should develop a new product targeting a potential market opportunity. Members of the group come from diverse functions: marketing, IT, operations, customer service, R&D, sales and senior management.

After three days of meetings and often heated discussion, the committee lead states, "So we need to develop and launch this product within six months. Does everyone agree?" Everyone agrees. Six months later, nothing substantive has been done, and no one seems to know why. What went wrong?

We've all experienced the consequences of ineffective teams: teams that couldn't reach agreement; teams that got sidetracked by private agendas or unproductive behaviors; teams whose members couldn't come out of their "silo" views, and teams that seemed to lack a sense of purpose. A typical reaction to these situations is to think it might have been better to have one person do the work alone after all.

There are two key issues for managers who assign or lead teams: first determining whether the work requires a team; and if so, how to organize the team to achieve at the highest level.

Teamwork vs. Individual Work. Despite the workplace emphasis on creating teams, at least 80% of work is accomplished by individuals working alone. If the work requires specific specialist knowledge, and is a repeatable, routine activity, it may be better accomplished by an individual, not a team. For example, maintaining a monthly spreadsheet analyzing expenses to budget does not require a team. The activity can easily be accomplished by an individual with the right specialist knowledge.

In general, the less routine the activity — the more it requires multiple forms of specialist knowledge, and the more varied perspectives are needed — the more likely a team will be required. The significant questions managers need to ask are: 1) Is more than one person needed to provide the specialist knowledge and perspective required to perform this work? 2) If so, how do I create a cooperative context and organize the team so they can accomplish what needs to be done?

Organizing to Achieve. How a team organizes determines its effectiveness. Many teams, like the eight-person team in the example above, are ineffective because they either are not provided the necessary context by the person who created the team, or they are unable to maintain cooperation effectively on their own.

It is often assumed that teams will simply figure out how to organize effectively, through trial and error. "They'll figure it out," we hope to ourselves. But the results of trial and error can be disastrous, leading to competition, hostility and resentment. When creating a team, a leader can guide the team by setting a context for cooperation — and only three things are necessary to create that context:

  • A Common End. What does the team need to accomplish? They must have a common purpose for that specific activity. Without a common end, they can only compete or compromise from their individual perspectives, both of which will undermine their results.

  • A System of Effective Communication. How are the team members going to communicate effectively to accomplish this end? Do they have a common language set? Do they use the same words and phrases to mean the same things? Do they listen to and respond to each other? Do they challenge vague language, and question assumptions? Do they have tools for minimizing distractions and tangents?

  • Willingness to Serve. Is everyone on the team willing to contribute, and to do what it takes to accomplish this end? They must not only be willing to engage, but they must also be willing to maintain the context by re-establishing the common end when it gets lost, or by facilitating communication when it breaks down.

It is actually quite simple (but often difficult in application): if the context supports these three things — common purpose, clear communication and willingness to contribute — the people in that context will cooperate. And if the group is struggling to cooperate well, then at least one of these things is certainly missing.

Whether you are creating a team, leading a team or participating on a team, understanding these three elements will help provide the focus and direction necessary to achieve the highest levels of results.


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