The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization

The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization

by Jon R. Katzenbach, Douglas K. Smith


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633691063
Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 234,827
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jon R. Katzenbach is Founder and Senior Sponsor of the Katzenbach Center at PwC Strategy& (US) LLC. Since the 1980s, he has been recognized as a global leader and expert in leadership, teaming, and culture.

Douglas K. Smith is widely acknowledged to be among the world’s leading management innovators and thinkers. His books include On Value and Values, Fumbling the Future, Make Success Measurable, and Taking Charge of Change.

Read an Excerpt

Why Teams?

TEAMS have existed for hundreds of years, are the subject of countless books, and have been celebrated throughout many countries and cultures. Most people believe they know how teams work as well as the benefits teams offer. Many have had first-hand team experiences themselves, some of which were rewarding and others a waste of time. Yet, as we explored the use of teams, it became increasingly clear that the potential impact of single teams, as well as the collective impact of many teams, on the performance of large organizations is woefully underexploited -despite the rapidly growing recognition of the need for what teams have to offer. Understanding this paradox and the discipline required to deal with it are central to the basic lessons we learned about team performance.


Initially, we thought that executives and other decision makers could make teams work if only they understood the compelling argument for why teams make a difference to performance. We learned the challenge is more difficult than that. Most people, particularly business executives, already recognize the value in teams. Long-standing habits, demanding time schedules, and unwarranted assumptions, however,seem to prevent them from taking full advantage of team opportunities.

We also thought that people understood most of what differentiated a team from a nonteam, and, therefore, only needed a clearer definition of terms to take full advantage of teams. We discovered instead that most people simply do not apply what they already know about teams In any disciplined way and thereby miss the performance potential within existing teams, muchless seek out new potential team opportunities.

There is much more to the wisdom of teams than we ever expected, which we highlight in the following summary of key lessons we have learned about teams and team performance.

1. Significant performance challenges energize teams regardless of where they are in an organization. No team arises without a performance challenge that is meaningful to those involved. Good personal chemistry or the desire to "become a team," for example, can foster teamwork values, but teamwork is not the same thing as a team. Rather, a common set of demanding performance goals that a group considers important to achieve will lead, most of the time, to both performance and a team . Performance, however, is the primary objective while a team remains the means, not the end.

Performance is the crux of the matter for teams. Its importance applies to many different groupings, including teams who recommend things, teams who make or do things, and teams who run or manage things. Each of these three types of teams do face unique challenges. Teams that make or do things often need to develop new skills for managing themselves as compared to teams elsewhere in organizations. Teams that recommend things often find their biggest challenge comes when they make the handoff to those who must implement their findings. Finally, groups who run or manage things must address hierarchical obstacles and turf issues more than groups who recommend, make, or do things. But notwithstanding such special issues, any team-if it focuses on performance regardless of where it is in an organization or what it does-will deliver results well beyond what individuals acting alone in nonteam working situations could achieve.

2. Organizational leaders can foster team performance best bybuilding a strong performance ethic rather than by establishing ateam-promoting environment alone. A performance focus is alsocritical to what we learned about how leaders create organizationalenvironments that are friendly to teams. In fact, too many executives fall into the trap of appearing to promote teams for the sake of teams. They talk about entire organizations becoming a "team" and thereby equate teams with teamwork. Or they reorganize their companies around self-managing teams, and risk putting the number of officially designated teams as an objective ahead of performance. They sometimes loosely refer to their own small group at the top as a team when most people in the organization recognize they are anything but a team.

Real teams are much more likely to flourish if leaders aim their sights on performance results that balance the needs of customers, employees, and shareholders. Clarity of purpose and goals have tremendous power in our ever more change-driven world. Most people, at all organizational levels, understand that job security depends on customer satisfaction and financial performance, and are willing to be measured and rewarded accordingly. What is perhaps less well appreciated, but equally true, is how the opportunity to meet clearly stated customer and financial needs enriches jobs and leads to personal growth.

Most of us really do want to make a difference. Naturally, organization policies, designs, and processes that promote teams can accelerate team-based performance in companies already blessed with strong performance cultures. But in those organizations with weak performance ethics or cultures, leaders will provide a sounder foundation for teams by addressing and demanding performance than by embracing the latest organization design fad, including teams themselves.

3. Biases toward individualism exist but need not get in the way of team performance. Most of us grow up with a strong sense of individual responsibility. Parents, teachers, coaches, and role models of all kinds shape our values based on individual accomplishment. Rugged individualism is credited with the formation of our country and our political society. These same values carry through in our corporate families, where all advancement and reward systems are based on individual evaluations. Even when teams are part of the picture, it is seldom at the expense of individual achievement. We are taught to play fair, but "Always look out for number one!" And, most of us have taken this to heart far more deeply than sentiments such as "We're all in this together" or "If one falls, we all fail."

Table of Contents

Prologue A Note About What to Expect
Part One Understanding Teams
Chapter 1 Why Teams?
Chapter 2 One Team: A Story of Performance
Chapter 3 Team Basics: A Working Definition and Discipline
Chapter 4 High-Performance Teams: Very Useful Models
Part Two Becoming a Team
Chapter 5 The Team Performance Curve
Chapter 6 Moving up the Curve: From Individual to Team Performance
Chapter 7 Team Leaders
Chapter 8 Teams, Obstacles, and Endings: Getting Unstuck
Part Three Exploiting the Potential
Chapter 9 Teams and Performance: The Reinforcing Cycle
Chapter 10 Teams and Major Change: An Inevitable Combination
Chapter 11 Teams at the Top: A Difficult Choice
Chapter 12 Top Management's Role: Leading to the High-Performance Organization Epilogue A Call to Action
Appendix Teams Researched for Book
Selected Readings

What People are Saying About This

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne, Business Week
You'll be hard-pressed to find a better guide to forming what many consider an essential building block of the organization of the future.

Christopher Lorenz

Christopher Lorenz, Financial Times
An unusually thorough study of teamsThe book is full of advice about how to organise proper - and properly effective - ones..

Senator Bill Bradley

Former Senator Bill Bradley
The Wisdom of Teams captures the power and vision of what great business teams can accomplish. Its stories and lessons should be read and learned.

Reading Group Guide


Since its initial publication in 1993, The Wisdom of Teams has provided hundreds of thousands of readers with the keys to outstanding performance. A proven source of timeless insight, this revolutionary book has broad applications in the workplace and beyond. From the boardroom to the living room or classroom, the principles revealed by consultants Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith challenge conventional wisdom about group dynamics and explore the surprising factors that truly drive success. For anyone who feels frustrated by colleagues or despondent about underachieving in any aspect of life, The Wisdom of Teams is an effective and eye-opening trove.

Topics for Discussion

  1. Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith assert that forming a high-performance team leads to greater success than "going it alone." In the past, have you generally preferred working independently or in a group? How did The Wisdom of Teams affect your perceptions of teamwork? How can teams benefit even the most rugged individualists?

  2. The essential ingredient in high-performance teams is the creation of quantifiable goals. What are your current professional and personal goals? Using the parameters outlined in the book, who are the bona fide members of your teams? How can you measure their performance in meeting- -- and surpassing- -- these targets?

  3. On page xxvi of their introduction, the authors discuss the crucial issue of time and its relationship to a team member's capacity. Consider the teams you currently participate in, including those that are merely working groups. How would you characterize your current capacityload? What would be the most effective way of improving your own time/capacity ratio in relation to that of your teammates?

  4. Early in the book, on page 21, the authors emphasize the distinction between real teams and other types of groups that try to work together: "Teams are discrete units of performance, not a positive set of values." Given these parameters, are you involved with any real teams? What would it take to transform some of your groups into real teams?

  5. The goals for the Burlington Northern Intermodal team (introduced in chapter two) were extraordinarily challenging, ranging from animosity between truckers and the railroad industry to the worst possible scenario for a proving ground. Do you face any similar obstacles in your life, particularly those that require "intermodal" maneuvering? What can be learned from this team's approach?

  6. What techniques can help team members foster and exploit mutual candor? What are some of the underlying reasons that can make a team inhibited rather than candid, and how can those inhibitions be eased?

  7. How would you respond to skeptics who might say that dramatic turnarounds- -- such as the tremendous reduction of errors in a Knight-Ridder newspaper's advertising department- -- could have more easily been accomplished through the work of one very detailed oversight manager?

  8. Meetings seldom rank high on anyone's list of enjoyable activities. Consider the de facto meetings you regularly attend as well as the less formal assemblies that take place in your life. How could the Team Performance Curve outlined on page 90 enhance the outcome of your various meetings, from a staff meeting at work to a parent-teacher conference at your child's school?

  9. Consider the various tasks you need to accomplish each week in all aspects of your life. How could chapter five's "vital signs," defined on page 105, enhance and ease the completion of this work?

  10. On page 133, the authors explore the conundrum of effective team leaders, summarizing the essence of the team leader's job as "striking the right balance between providing guidance and giving up control." In what ways could this concept benefit all areas of your life, even those that don't appear to be related to leadership issues? Which portion of the spectrum presents more of a challenge for you- -- providing guidance or giving up control?

  11. The authors offer clear ground rules for navigating the special situations often encountered by teams, particularly the process of getting a team unstuck or inspiring a team to rise to new levels of achievement. Which scenario best describes the status of your current primary team? Create a plan (with quantifiable results, of course) for facilitating the necessary change within the team.

  12. Page 148 features a quotation admired by Kodak's Steve Fragos and attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu: "When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'" Consider your own leadership philosophy, no matter what your job title or family role implies. Is this philosophy consistent with that of the inspiring top-management leaders you've known throughout your life?

  13. Discuss the executive team meeting transcript that begins on page 225. How might you have responded to the various issues raised in the meeting? How would you characterize the balance of power and the decision-making process within this team?

  14. Appendix A summarizes the author's counterintuitive findings, while Appendix B illustrates the fact that a flourishing team can be beneficial in a wide variety of contexts- -- from manufacturing to education. Drawing on your community, add your own questions and statements of purpose to these two grids. What answers and results can you infer from The Wisdom of Teams?

  15. In the book's epilogue, the authors discuss the incredible power of civic pride in bringing victory to the Killer Bees, a boys' high school basketball team from Bridgehampton, New York. The anecdote shows that unbridled enthusiasm is indeed the key ingredient that spawns all other attributes of a winning team. Discuss the ways in which the concept of "civic pride" can be adapted to teams in other settings. How can you ensure that this sense of pride becomes an enduring legacy?
About the Authors: Jon R. Katzenbach is a founder of Katzenbach Partners LLC, consultants in the areas of organization, leadership, and workforce performance. His published works include Why Pride Matters More Than Money, Real Change Leaders, Teams at the Top, and The Work of Teams. Douglas K. Smith is a leading consultant on organization performance and change. His published works include On Value and Values, Make Success Memorable!, Taking Charge of Change, and Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer. Mr. Katzenbach and Mr. Smith are both formerly of McKinsey & Company.

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Guest More than 1 year ago
What's nice about Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith's book is their willingness to name the truth. They know that everyone pays lip service to teams, but few people act like they truly value teams - and fewer still actually know how teams really work. The authors point out where the hype lies and what it is hiding. Then they go a step farther. They provide a manual for creating what executives say they want: high-performance teams. They illustrate their suggestions, insights and guidelines with a lot of stories of real-world teams, focusing on what makes them work. Their rules are so clear that they leave little room for protecting any cherished illusions. As a result, we find that those readers who are willing to act upon the book's counsel will get the most from it. If you're seriously interested in diagnosing nonperforming teams and creating ones that perform, you'll enjoy this book. And, if you think you're already doing everything right, but your team mysteriously just isn't working...this may solve the puzzle.