At work, there is almost no greater feeling than being part of a high-performing team, and no worse than being part of a dysfunctional one.
Teams are not, by definition, destined to succeed. In fact more often then not, they will fail unless they have the right mix of people, purpose, process, commitment, training, and of course, leadership—along with the time for it all to jell.
I remember being on a team in one special law enforcement agency that had the “right mix.” The project was both very successful and was written up as a case study, and everything in the project was really fulfilling personally and professionally: from gathering around the whiteboard for creative strategy sessions to the execution of each phase of the project. Now, that is not to say that there were not challenges on the project and on the team—there always are—or you are probably just dreaming rather than really in the office working. But the overall, in the experience, the health of the team was conducive to doing some really cool stuff. When the team is healthy and the project successful, you feel good about getting up in the morning and going to work—an almost priceless experience.
Unfortunately, this team experience was probably more the exception than the rule—as many teams are dysfunctional for one or more reasons. In fact, at the positive team experience that I was described above, my boss used to say, “the stars are all aligned for us.”
The challenge of putting together high-performance teams is described in Harvard Business Review, May 2009, in an article, “Why Teams Don’t Work,” by Diane Coutu.
She states: “Research consistently shows that teams underperform their potential.”
But Coutu explains that this phenomenon of underperformance by teams can be overcome, by following “five basic conditions” as described in “Leading Teams” by J. Richard Hackman (the descriptions of these are my thoughts):
“Teams must be real”—you need the right mix of people: who’s in and who’s out.
“Compelling direction”—teams need a clear purpose: “what they’re supposed to be doing” and is it meaningful.
“Enabling structures”—teams need process: how are things going to get done and by whom.
“Supportive organization”—teams need the commitment of the organization and its leadership: who is championing and sponsoring the team.
“Expert coaching”—you need training: how teams are supposed to behave and produce.
While leadership is not called out specifically, to me it is the “secret sauce” or the glue that holds all the other team enablers together. The skilled leader knows who to put on the team, how to motivate its members to want to succeed, how to structure the group to be productive and effective, how to build and maintain commitment, and how to coach, counsel, mentor, and ensure adequate training and tools for the team members.
One other critical element that Coutu spells out is courage. Team leaders and members need to have the courage to innovate, “ask difficult questions,” to counter various forms of active or passive resistance, and to experiment.
In short, harnessing the strength of a team means bringing out the best in everyone, making sure that the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals offset each other—there is true synergy in working together. In failing teams, everyone might as well stay home. In high-performance teams, the whole team is greater than the sum of its individual members.