Teamwork is a word that has gained usage with the advent of the Human Relations management movement in US history. See the graph below.
Teamwork’s ubiquity makes it hardly worth debating. That we need teams to do world class things seems inarguable. When to apply teams has been vigorously discussed. My go-to on this subject is former McKinsey director, Jon Katzenbach. Katzenbach has written extensively on the topic of teaming. One of my favorite articles is The Discipline of Teams, where he says:
We found that there is a basic discipline that makes teams work. We also found that teams and good performance are inseparable: You cannot have one without the other.
I have been arguing for a higher order of teamwork with several executive teams, lately. Katzenbach also famously wrote in The Myth of the Top Management Team,
But walk into almost any organization and ask anyone about the “team at the top.” The immediate response is likely to be a knowing, skeptical smile, followed by a comment along the lines of “Well, they are not really a team, but…”
But team at the top is a badly misused term that obscures both what teams can actually accomplish and what is required to make them work. The terminology is important: when we are undisciplined in our language, we become undisciplined in our thinking and actions. Real teams must follow a well-defined discipline in order to achieve their performance potential.
A perplexing kerfuffle emerges: the gaggle of folks allegedly leading are more than likely not a team (according to Katzenbach’s definition), yet -alarmingly – “teams and good performance are inseparable.”
My argument is that the key word here is “performance.”
Team performance (note the distinction between team and individual) at the front line is tangible, measurable. What does team performance look like at the top? How can you measure team performance, especially when our systems and management zeitgeist are set up to measure individual effort at the top?
For example, we see how quickly a public board will act to remove a CEO for poor earnings per share. What role did the team play in the poor performance? Indeed, everything rises and falls on leadership, especially in our Western way of thinking. But, what if the whole team was accountable for success?
In our operational excellence system, the top executives share a set of common targets. Most executive level groups have difficulty conceiving of shared targets. Stuck in their stovepipes, they nod and smile, but entirely fail to grasp that the team must move as a team.
Here is a list of three things that movement as a team does to improve team performance:
- The Crucible of Shared Crisis. Many world class companies’ intense focus on problem solving causes them to keep the taste of crisis on the tip of their collective tongues. When team members share in a crisis, they drop their local agendas, stop behaving badly and pull together to do amazing things.
- Knowing Each Other Leads to Deeper Trust. When a group moves as a team, friction is natural and conflict occurs. It isn’t until a team begins to conflict that truth comes out. When truth arrives, it is like a bright light shining in the dark. Once we get used to the jarring effect of it, we can see details more clearly: the facts emerge and trust increases. Facts de-escalate the emotions of conflict.
- Navigating Conflict Together Improves Respect. When a team member takes a stand, the team gets to see the very essence of that team member. Agree or disagree, respect for a well-argued opinion is natural.
If you live “at the top” of your organization, you work with a group of people who got there because of their ability to work independently. World class performance, however, requires the interdependence of the team. The sooner you get there, the sooner you move – as a team – to sustained performance.