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The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization

The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization

3.9 7
by Jon Katzenbach, Douglas Smith

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Teams -- the key to top performance

Motorola relied heavily on teams to surpass its competition in building the lightest, smallest, and highest-quality cell phones. At 3M, teams are critical to meeting the company's goal of producing half of each year's revenues from the previous five years' innovations. Kodak's Zebra Team proved the worth of black-and-white


Teams -- the key to top performance

Motorola relied heavily on teams to surpass its competition in building the lightest, smallest, and highest-quality cell phones. At 3M, teams are critical to meeting the company's goal of producing half of each year's revenues from the previous five years' innovations. Kodak's Zebra Team proved the worth of black-and-white film manufacturing in a world where color is king.

But many companies overtook the potential of teams in turning around tagging profits, entering new markets, and making exciting innovations happen -- because they don't know how to utilize teams successfully. Authors Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith talked with hundreds of people in more than thirty companies to find out where and how teams work best and how to enhance their effectiveness. They reveal:

The most important element in team success
Who excels at team leadership ... and why they are rarely the most senior people
Why companywide change depends on teams ... and more

Comprehensive and proven effective, The Wisdom of Teams is the classic primer on making teams a powerful tool for success in today's global marketplace.

Editorial Reviews

This guide basically contains the same valuable advice on team building as the first edition, which came out in 1994. Authors Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith discuss ways to enhance team performance, deal with change and manage your group.


  • The guide defines team performance levels, such as the working group, the pseudo team, the potential team, the real team and the high-performance team.
  • Discusses ways to deal with obstacles, including injecting new information and perspectives, setting clear and specific goals, and changing the team's membership.
  • Using examples from Hewlett-Packard and Motorola, it explains how strong leadership ensures balance and focus in teams.
  • Examines change, including top-down culture shaping, bottom-up goal achievement and cross-functional redesign.
  • Discusses team ethics in management, performance and leadership.
  • Uses real-world examples from companies such as Deloitte & Touche, and Kodak.
Related Titles:

For a hands-on guide to team building, check out 1999 Team and Organization Development Sourcebook, Fourth Edition.

Business Week
A thoughtful and well-written book filled with fascinating examples. . . . You will be hard-pressed to find a better guide to the essential building block of the organization of the future.
Business Week
Publishers Weekly
The importance of teams has become a clichi of modern business theory, but few have a clear idea of what it means. In this new edition of their best-selling primer, Katzenbach and Smith try to impart some analytical rigor to the concept. Drawing on their experience as management consultants and a plethora of case studies at companies like Burlington Northern and Motorola, they cover such topics as the optimal size of teams, coping with turnover in team personnel and nurturing "extraordinary teams" rather than "pseudo-teams." Reacting against the touchy-feely interpersonal bent of discourse on teams, they emphasize hard-nosed principles of "performance, focus, and discipline," over the softer concerns of "communication, openness and 'chemistry.'" Teams, they argue, gel and achieve not by developing "togetherness," but by tackling and surmounting specific "outcome-based" challenges ("eliminate all late deliveries...within 90 days" rather than the vaguer "develop a plan for improving customer satisfaction."). Some of the authors' recommendations are reasonably precise and practical, but too many are nebulous truisms ("[k]eep the purpose, goals, and approach relevant and meaningful") or weighed down by turgid consultant-ese ("[i]ntegrating the performance goals of formal, structural units as well as special ad hoc group efforts becomes a significant process design challenge"). The case studies are better written, but it's not clear that these inspiring anecdotes of team triumph add up to a systematic doctrine. The book leaves the impression that teams ultimately just have to learn by doing. (Mar.) THE FAMILY DINNER: A Celebration of Love, Laughter, and Leftovers Linda Sunshine and Mary Tiegreen. Clarkson Potter, $16.95 (112p) ISBN 1400045924 An ode to the joys of meatloaf and Campbell's soup, Sunshine and Tiegreen's compact book reveres that American family ritual: the family dinner. The authors-longtime friends and collaborators on books about shoes, dogs and other subjects-give the book a decidedly 1950s feel to play up the nostalgia for a time when Mom whipped up a hearty meal while Dad poured himself a cocktail and loosened his tie to dig in. Slightly idealistic ("family dinners establish the rhythm of family life and define who we are, where we come from, and where we might expect to be going"), the authors root their book in vintage photos and concepts. There's a photograph of a big Italian family-men in sleeveless undershirts and women with their hair done up-seated at a table replete with carafes of red wine; and another of a perky housewife, beaming as she takes a bottle of milk out of the fridge. Mini-essays and quotes from Calvin Trillin, Nora Ephron, Ruth Reichl and others complement the black and white photos. While corny at times, Sunshine and Tiegreen's homage is also wistful and oddly reassuring. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The authors, who are both consultants, conducted extensive interviews with companies to discover how successful teams are created and sustained. The result is not a research report but a collection of minicase histories and commentary. Some of the findings: Teams respond to performance challenges and not to managers' exhortations for more ``teamwork.'' Organizations committed to high-performance standards and willing to modify individual accountability requirements experience the greatest success with teams. Successful team leaders are not necessarily those with remarkable leadership qualities. Instead, they ``simply need to believe in their purpose and their people.'' Team leaders do real work, remove obstacles, and build trust and confidence. Recommended for larger public libraries and special business collections.-- Andrea C. Dragon, Coll. of St. Elizabeth, Convent Station, N.J.
From the Publisher
PRAISE for The Wisdom of Teams:

“A thoughtful and well-written book filled with fascinating examples . . . You will be hard-pressed to find a better guide to the essential building block of the organization of the future.” — BusinessWeek

“An unusually thorough study of teams . . . As well as challenging much conventional wisdom about teams, the book is full of advice about how to organize proper—and properly effective—teams.” — Financial Times

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.” — Senator Bill Bradley

“Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith have lived with high-performance teams for years. Now they share their meticulous observations with all of us in an important and timely book, brimming with useful detail.” — Tom Peters

Product Details

Harvard Business Review Press
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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."

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.

Meet the Author

Jon R. Katzenbach has been with McKinsey & Company, Inc. for more than three decades, and since the mid-1980s has led the firm's worldwide organization performance and change practice.

Douglas K. Smith is a leading commentator on organizational performance and change and a former McKinsey & Company, Inc. consultant who has co-authored two previous books: Sources of the African Past and Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented and Then Ignored the First Personal Computer.

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Wisdom of Teams 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
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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.