The Wisdom of Teams Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organisation

Reviewed by: 
Jon R Katzenbach and Doudlas K Smith
Harvard Business School
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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“Teamwork” is one of those words that trips off the tongue easily without us having to give much thought to what we actually mean by it. Equally, there are numerous books on the subject and scores of organisations ready and eager to sell you their methodology for building, developing or evaluating teams. But in my opinion the starting point is to understand your own team situation as only then can you start to consider the team’s development needs. It is for this reason that I particularly like this book.

The Wisdom of Teams begins by asking the question – “why teams?”

Katzenbach and Smith found that many managers and business leaders did not have a clear understanding of the stages of team development and they therefore miss the performance potential within existing teams and fail to identify new team opportunities.

Possibly the difficulty in this area is the bias that exists within our domestic and business culture towards individualism. Most of us grow up with a strong sense of individual responsibility and seeing independence as being the ultimate goal. Parents, teachers, coaches and role models of all kinds shape our values based on individual accomplishment and these same values carry forward into organisational life where advancement and rewards are based on individual achievement. Even where teams are involved, recognitions still tends to remains focused on individuals.

This is not to say that teams are the solution to each and every organisational need. Katzenbach and Smith point out that people working individually are an important part of organisational life and collections of individuals working together in “working groups” (as they call them) is an effective way of organising workers in some situations.

The premise of the book however, is that teams are the key to success in our performance-driven world and there is much that can be done within organisations to improve the performance and effectiveness of those teams.

Through their research, Katzenback and Smith identified four stages of team development:

Pseudo team – a collection of individuals for whom there could be significant performance benefits derived from working together, but who have not focused on collective performance and are not really trying to achieve it.

Potential team – a collection of individuals for whom there is a clear benefit to be derived from working as a team but who may lack clarity about their common purpose or goals.

Real team – a small number of people with complementary skills who are jointly committed to a common purpose, goals, and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

High performance team – a group that meets all the conditions of real teams and whose members are also deeply committed, even beyond the team setting, to one another’s personal growth and success.

Katzenbach and Smith found that they could also plot the progression of these various groups on a performance curve which measures team effectiveness against the performance impact of the team.

An interesting finding was that “Working Groups” were more productive than “Pseudo teams”. This is because people within Working Groups are able to get on with their work individually and have little or no need to work together. People in Pseudo Teams, on the other hand, have a need to work collaboratively, but have not yet got their act together.

Of greatest concern was their finding that “Potential” teams are the most common types of teams in organisations. They are made up of people who probably see the advantage in working together but somehow never quite get round to it. If this is indeed the case, then it maybe provides a clue as to why good leaders can often have a dramatic impact on performance by moving “Potential” teams to “Real teams and in doing so enabling them to come much closer to achieving their potential.

My only criticism of the book is that it paints a picture of teams moving sequentially through these four stages of development towards an ultimate goal whereas in my experience teams do not develop in such a linear and sequential way. In my opinion, established teams will inevitably display attributes of all stages of development at different times and will vary according to circumstances.

Never the less, this criticism does not detract from the value of the book as I believe an understanding of the stages Katzenbach and Smith describe is valuable in understanding the dynamics of team working and is especially valuable to team leaders.

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