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.
LESSONS WE LEARNED
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."