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.

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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.

Leadership is a group outcome

I’m not a big fan of competency models.  They can be interesting as a measuring stick for basic performance, but they tend towards generic “best” practices and don’t seem to be very useful to the people I’ve worked around.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a successful person dissect his/her performance along the lines of an existing model.  abe_lincoln

It’s troubling to me that “fixing” yourself up according to an ideal set of competencies is a path towards success.   But the really big flaw in this approach is the focus on individual competence.

Bob Sutton echoes this thought in his recent post of Flawed, Suspect, and Incomplete Assumptions about Managing People .  I trust his instincts and value his persistence in defeating these types of assumptions.  I think they are a big problem for businesses today.

I’ve been watching people perform in a wide variety of settings for quite some time and I’ve come to believe that leadership development is a waste of time.  And I’ve wasted lots of time on it, trust me!  Instead, I’ve shifted to relationship development.  Helping people function better together has way more impact than teaching people insights about themselves that they can generalize to better behavior in the future.

Also, consider the idea that leadership is not a competency at all.  It’s really an outcome.  When I behave successfully with others to solve something, start something, finish something, we’ve accomplished leadership.

Most great leaders are actually collaborators in great actions that change the course of events and create big impact.  Consider Abraham Lincoln… (read Team of Rivals) how much time do you suppose he invested in leadership development versus improving his connections with others?   Next time you consider spending training dollars or valuable time on leadership training, spend that money, time, and energy on improving the performance of your relationships with others instead.

Some tips for better (team) interactions:

1. Spend more time together.

2. Improve your dialog, building on ideas instead of “winning” with the best one.

3. Compare the number of questions versus statements you make as a group.

4. Connect with advisers outside of your team.  Invite them in to your team to give their perspective.

5. Ask someone on your team to give you advice on your own participation.

Work successfully with others and leadership will happen!

Another kind of team

The conventional wisdom on how a team should operate

The conventional wisdom on how a team should operate

I’ve been around a lot of teams… and a lot of team building.  Enough to be cynical about the whole topic.  But something about the potential of people working well together keeps me coming back to explore further.

The famously successful Netflix contest awarding $1 Million to anyone who could solve their movie recommendation problem is a great case to illustrate how creative teams are different than traditional work teams.

The leader of the winning team credits their success to blending different approaches to the problem and coming up with something better.  This is one of the things that powers successful design teams at IDEO.  That is, teams comprised of diverse perspectives and styles are better  at solving complex problems than teams of like-minded, similarly trained members.

One quote in a NY Times article about the Netflix Prize really got my attention:

The sort of sophisticated teamwork deployed in the Netflix contest, it seems, is a tricky business.  Having these big collaborations may be great for innovation, but it’s very, very difficult. Out of thousands, you have only two that succeeded. The big lesson for me was that most of those collaborations don’t work.

Tricky maybe, but that’s because much of the conventional wisdom about running a good team is wrong under conditions of uncertainty, not because it’s inherently hard to accomplish. Most people think of teams as a group effort where you divide the workload among a cohesive band of players, led with clear directions from a focused leader.  Under this model of teaming, diversity is bad and discontent worse.  So with this dominant mindset, it’s no wonder the concept of multidisciplinary teams is so hard to handle.

Given the value created by multidisciplinary teams, there’s a growing body of insights developed by people like Jeff Polzer and Daniel Wilson that show us some of the tricks multidisciplinary teams employ to overcome the barriers of their diversity.

And, if you are working on a creative task or solving a complex problem, the effort pays off.  Just ask IDEO.

Here’s some keys to getting multidisciplinary teams to work (pardon the academic lingo, but you’ll get the point)

1. Proactive Self Disclosure: teams effective at solving complex problems must thrive in uncertainty.  It’s more functional to share when you are stuck or “don’t know” than it is to pretend you do.  Daniel Wilson studied adventure racing teams and found that the “best of the best” quickly share their needs, issues and concerns so the others on the team can rally around them with proper supports and solutions.

2. Conditional Statements: Instead of stating ideas as facts, certainties, or “THE” answer; members of successful problem solving teams share statements with soft edges like, it might be…  I’m not sure but… and could it be that? These statements invite others to disagree or add to the comment versus attempt to be persuasive, conclusive and to convince others to go along.

3. Interpersonal Congruence: This means that members of a group view each other the same as they each view themselves (strengths, weaknesses, intentions).  Jeff Polzner’s research shows that groups can achieve harmony and produce effective work processes by expressing rather than suppressing the characteristics that make them different.

4. Clarity of Purpose: when all members of a team are clear about the reason they are together, it’s easy for them to “triangulate” away from polarized opinions and use the common purpose to discern the best of each side’s argument.  Rather than compromise to reduce conflict, this common purpose (like the Netflix Prize) pushes people to breakthrough ideas.