The (new) wisdom of teams

The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith is one of the most useful books I have ever read.  It provides a clear framework for team success based on sound research. That plus the memorable: Form, Storm, Norm, Perform stages of team development by Bruce Tuckman helped me diagnose and facilitate teams for over 20 years.

Key to these models is the distinction between a “real team” and other small working groups that don’t exhibit complementary skills, commitment to a common purpose, shared performance goals, and mutual accountability for their approach to the work at hand.

Over the years, I’ve come to find that team development as Katzenbach, Smith, and Tuckman observed it depends on a stable surrounding environment, which is becoming less and less common.  Today’s work place is fraught with complexity, ambiguity, and overlapping priorities.  Speed and confusion are facts of life, not the result of a poorly run organization.

photo from blog.jaciclark.com

Often teams have a hard time functioning as suggested in The Original Wisdom (choirs sing here) because the demands to perform start immediately, and there’s no time to go through the team development stages.  And I have to admit that many business leaders in my career have argued that the time it takes for team building is unnecessary.

Today’s successful teams seem to skip some of the stages and get right to work, much as people can jump up and start dancing together at a wedding with little planning or communication.  They just know what to do when the music starts. I’ve shared some of the insights about this “new” kind of team in an earlier post on teams, and it was so popular I thought I’d add some more on the topic.

Here’s some of the new wisdom emerging from my observations conducted at IDEO with my research partner Daniel Wilson:

3 Degrees of Team: we’ve noticed performance differences in teams can be correlated to various “degrees” of team complexity.  A “client-embedded, extended team” seems to out perform the other types.

1. A “core team” has 3-5 people with different skills working closely on a project.

2. An “extended team” can have 20 or 30 people who identify themselves as members of the team, but do not participate fully in all team activities.  Sometimes they offer a quick assessment of the work, while other times they make a specialized contribution to the overall work product.

2. A “client embedded” team has representatives of the sponsoring agency actually on the team versus reviewing or supporting the work from afar.

Team fluidity: one commonly held belief of a team is that it forms with an original set of members (like a rock band) and keeps those same members for the life of its work.  We’ve seen that successful teams are more fluid and can easily accommodate the arrival and departure of members over the life of their work.  This is managed with the use of project artifacts, boundary objects, and a continuing project narrative that keeps everyone up-to-date and connected to the current state of the team and work.

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