The Wisdom of Teams

In this edition of my newsletter, I have chosen to highlight a real classic on teams. The Wisdom of Teams was first published in 1992 in the heyday of teams in business. A number of business gurus of that time were promoting teams as the answer to all corporate ills. The total quality management (TQM) movement, hot in the 1990’s, lauded quality circles and process improvement teams as a way to rid organizations of waste and inefficiencies.

One might read from the tone of my writing that I do not look too fondly back on those years. I remember them as a time of frustration when every bit of work on one’s desk had to be completed in a team. Teams were formed to determine direction, make decisions, fix problems, and so on. Management by consensus was the norm and work pace was mighty slow as a result.

So why do I still have a copy of the Wisdom of Teams in my business library? Because even in the height of teams as the answer to everything, Katzenbach and Smith present a neat little tome that gives us the blueprint for making teams work, making them valuable and ensuring that they are productive.

Katzenbach and Smith open the book by covering some team basics, including this succinct definition:

A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

I have used this definition for years to diagnose team problems. Each of the elements listed, small in number, complementary skills, common purpose, performance goals, approach to work, can be observed and assessed. When any of these elements is lacking, a team will underperform. Increasing the clarity on any of these elements will improve on the functioning and results of the team.

The basic premise of the book, outlined in the first chapter, is that successful team processes are based on common sense yet the consistent application of team basics is often overlooked. Some of the overlooked basics include organizations that use systems of individual accountability and performance and clear statements of purpose and approach. Uncommon findings in their research on teams include the rarity of truly high-performing teams and the threat to hierarchical structure that teams can have. Katzenbach and Smith do not base their findings on research and theory but rather on years of studying successful and unsuccessful team in a wide array of organizational settings.

I especially find value in their chapter on team leaders. In this chapter they outline the responsibilities of the team leaders that we all expect: to keep the purpose, goals and approach clear and meaningful, to build commitment and confidence, to monitor the mix and levels of skills, to manage outside relationships, to remove obstacles to progress and to do real work on the team. But their summary statement is the real gem here: team leaders need to find the right balance between action and patience. Action we understand but patience means, being silent, stepping off to the side and letting the team members run the show. This stepping aside is the most challenging for leaders to practice and one that results in a true high-performing team rather than a micro-managed work group.

I pull The Wisdom of Teams off my book shelf whenever I find a team in trouble. The overlooked basics, once fixed, get the team going on the right track. Even through the research and writing for this book is more than 20 years old, I find it still relevant in today’s business climate. (A new version published in 2003 but I have not updated my copy). It definitely deserves a place on your classics shelf.