The Wisdom of Teams, by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith

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I love being part of teams. When I’m on a good team, I work harder, I get more done, and I enjoy the activity more. My biggest career achievement thus far was achieved as part of a tight interdisciplinary team. And yet I’ve often been part of teams that never jell, and are ultimately more frustrating than inspiring. What are the qualities that make a team work, and what can prevent good teams from forming? That’s what Katzenbach (whose work I previously enjoyed in Real Change Leaders) and Smith investigate in The Wisdom of Teams.

The book is filled with inspiring stories of teams that came together under dire circumstances and achieved amazing things. Katzenbach and Smith use these stories as a way of organizing their observations about how to create high-performance teams, from details of how to get people to exchange an individual focus for a team focus, to the characteristics of good team leaders, to how to get a team unstuck from obstacles. But let’s start with determining what a team is.

The authors define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” These are the key components to creating what they call a “real” team, as opposed to a group of individuals who are working together. They studied teams in dozens of organizations and determined these were the common elements among the teams that were highly successful. So let’s take a closer look at these characteristics.

  • Small number – Smaller groups have fewer logistical issues with meeting often enough for them to form a real team. In a small group, each person’s contributions and responsibilities are clear, whereas larger groups have a more difficult time organically determining those responsibilities.
  • Complementary skills – The members of the team have to have all of the necessary skills for them to achieve their goal. This requirement is somewhat less important than the others, as the authors observe that real teams give their members the incentive to go learn the skills they need for the team to be successful.
  • Common purpose – Everybody on the team has to believe in a common goal. Teams in the process formation often require a great deal of communication and negotiation to agree on their common goal, but until the overall purpose is clear, the team can not move forward.
  • Performance goals – The team must translate the common purpose into specific and measurable short-term goals. These goals give the team a chance to bind together in the pursuit of the goals, and create situations where all team members must contribute in order to achieve the goals. The goals also provide chances to celebrate small wins along the way towards the larger purpose.
  • Common approach – How does the team accomplish its goals? Who takes care of necessary logistics? The answers to these questions must be articulated for the team to continue moving towards its larger purpose, and not get mired in process and procedure.
  • Mutual accountability – This is the big one in my opinion. Teams have to feel accountable for their results as a team, not as a group of individuals. The idea that the team can fail but that an individual team member has succeeded is incompatible with a real team. But when a team really believes in its purpose and performance goals, it will often hold itself to standards far beyond what the organization is expecting of it.

The CellKey team which I enjoyed so much had all of the characteristics of a “real team”. We were 12 people, each with different skills, who were trying to build this completely new instrument. MDS Sciex gave us short-term performance goals in the form of “phase-gates” where we had to prove the viability of our research in order to continue moving forward with product development, but we held ourselves mutually accountable to a higher standard than Sciex did. And we achieved more than I would ever have thought possible when we originally started experimenting with cells in a back room at Signature.

One surprising lesson from this book is that an emphasis on teams does not create teams. No amount of team-building exercises or team initiatives will create teams… unless there is a focus on strong performance. The first “uncommonsense finding” in the prologue states that “Companies with strong performance standards seem to spawn more “real teams” than companies that promote teams per se”. When the stakes are high and things absolutely have to get done, the normal way of doing things breaks down as being too slow to change and react, so teams emerge as the method to reach those performance goals.

This observation reminds me of a paper on innovation that Scott Berkun recommended, which said that the way to spur innovation was to set a goal that was impossible to achieve by normal methods. People don’t think of new ways of doing things unless they are forced to by circumstance – why take the risk of trying something new when the old way will work? Similarly, organizations will cling to hierarchy and bureaucracy unless they absolutely have to achieve more than they have been; teams emerge to save the day.

I have to admit that I’m not entirely convinced that teams can be manufactured by applying the principles described in this book. As the Peopleware authors observe, team building is more about removing the obstacles to the team forming. I think that the observations of Katzenbach and Smith fall into a similar category – these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a team to emerge. I suspect that you could do everything mentioned in this book and still not have a team form because of a personality conflict or some other detail.

I recommend the book as a good way to reflect on how high-performance teams can be cultivated within an organization. It’s also fun to read about teams that conquer all the obstacles before them – the epilogue tells the story of the “Killer Bees”, a basketball team in Bridgehampton that competes for the state championship every year despite a male student body of less than 20. But they work hard, they play as a team, and with an entire town rooting for them, they somehow overcome the odds to succeed. Stories like that continue to inspire long after the book is done (which isn’t surprising, since it fits all of the Made to Stick rules of being simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and in the form of a story) and only add to the enjoyment of the book. Thumbs up.

higher standard than Sciex: At the end of one phase-gate, we were asked to rate ourselves on how we were doing, and we all rated ourselves poorly. Our project manager was surprised by this as we had achieved all the goals for that particular phase-gate, but we were comparing ourselves to where we needed to be to launch the product. I discussed this before as a symptom of big vs. small companies, but it’s not surprising that it’s relevant to team building as teams are essential to small company performance.

10 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Teams, by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith

  1. I had two thoughts while reading this post.

    1) Why are good teams so rare? Everyone knows teams are important and can talk about good teamwork, but yet in practice it’s oh so rare to find them.

    2) How do you keep good teams intact in large companies? What happens when you have 20 teams of 12 people? Where are the breakpoints for where the leadership challenges change? (e.g. a) How to lead one team? b) How to lead a team of teams c) How to lead a team of teams of teams).

    Did the book get into these points at all? I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do these questions justice.

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