Do teams really work -- all the time ?

VALUE of teams is almost a sacred unquestioned topic in management. Listen to any senior manager extolling the virtues of teamwork of his, or her, team even if in reality they are a disjointed upset group, each shooting off in their own directions with only their selfish goals in mind.  Yet we keep calling this group a ‘team’ hoping that if we repeat it enough times it will come true.  But at the end of the day, the map is not the terrain.   You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

VALUE of teams is almost a sacred unquestioned topic in management. Listen to any senior manager extolling the virtues of teamwork of his, or her, team even if in reality they are a disjointed upset group, each shooting off in their own directions with only their selfish goals in mind.

Yet we keep calling this group a ‘team’ hoping that if we repeat it enough times it will come true.  But at the end of the day, the map is not the terrain.   You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

There is no doubt that at times a group of people can pull together with diligence and produce an impressive result in a very limited time.  But is this the exception or the rule? 

Despite all the build-up of what we are told, any keen observer of teams in Kenyan business realises that at least more than half the time they can significantly under perform. Why is this?

Yes, in a team 1 + 1 can equal 3 when a leader is in place, which reaches consensus and pulls together everyone’s [sometimes conflicting] contributions, where the organiser truly creates value.

In contrast, one can have the situation in a group effort where 1 + 1 equals negative 2 where with wrangling and no real leadership, characterised by soap opera ego-filled dramas, precious time is lost and nothing gets done.

“Research consistently shows that teams under perform, despite all the extra resources they have.  That’s because problems of coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.  And even when you have a strong and cohesive team, it’s often in competition with other teams, and that dynamic can also get in the way of real progress. So you have two strikes against you right from the start, which is one reason why having a team is often worse than having no team at all” says J. Richard Hackman, professor of social and organisational psychology at Harvard University.  

The essential element of creating a team is having a leader who can bring together everyone’s contributions. Simply giving someone the title ‘leader’ does not make them a leader.

It helps if members of the group have the self awareness to understand their own personalities, and that of their co-workers, simply what they are good at, and where they are weak.

For instance, a creative conceptual idea person may have awful upsetting people skills, but their role may be critical for the team to be a success.

Best to stop trying to change people, but more understand where staff best fit in. Prof Hackman states that a ‘deviant’ is needed by every team, someone who will question what appears to be common knowledge and “are willing to say the thing that nobody else is willing to articulate”.  

Deviant’s role is to keep asking difficult questions, keeping everyone on their toes, and hopefully stops the team drifting off to collective back-patting mediocrity.

End of the day for teams to succeed, they need their membership clearly defined; one needs to know who is on, and who is off.

To succeed they need a clear focus given by the leader, so that different members don’t each pursue their own agenda.

Despite what we might like to think, there can be problems when new people who have never met each other work together.

For instance in aviation, “The US National Transportation Safety Board found that 73% of incidents in its database occurred on a crew’s first day of flying together, before people had a chance to learn through experience how best to operate as a team – and 44% of those took place on a crew’s very first flight”  notes Prof Hackman.

Despite all the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ management hype, teams are great when they deliver, but there are some tasks that individuals can do better on their own.

David J. Abbott is a management consultant based
in Kigali

dja@abbott.co.ke

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