"What makes the difference between a team that performs and one that doesn't?
That question is the preface to the classic article, "The Discipline of Teams," which Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith wrote for the Harvard Business Review back in 1993.
Attempting to answer that all-important question, the authors posited that there were three distinct types of teams, each with its own set of challenges. Though the article is nearly 20 years old, any manager can still learn a lot by paying attention to the three team categories:
Teams that recommend things.
These teams face two critical issues: "getting off to a fast and constructive start and dealing with the ultimate handoff that's required to get recommendations implemented." Management needs to ensure that these teams include respected employees who carry influence--the reputable types whose words have the potential to set organizational wheels in motion. "Missing the handoff" is the biggest problem these teams face. To avoid it, the authors suggest involving a few implementers in the recommendation process, if not on the recommendation team itself.
Teams that make or do things.
"More than anything else," assert the authors, "top management must make clear and compelling demands on the teams themselves and then pay constant attention to their progress with respect to both team basics and performance results." That sounds generic, but earlier in the article Katzenbach and Smith spell out the specifics:
• Establish urgency, demanding performance standards, and direction. "The more urgent and meaningful the rationale, the more likely it is that the team will live up to its performance potential."
• Select members for skill and skill potential, not personality. "The wise manager will choose people for their existing skills and their potential to improve existing skills and learn new ones."
• Pay particular attention to first meetings and actions. "If a senior executive leaves the team kickoff to take a phone call 10 minutes after the session has begun and never returns, people get the message."
• Set some clear rules of behavior. "The most critical initial rules pertain to attendance (for example, "no interruptions to take phone calls"), discussion ("no sacred cows"), confidentiality ("the only things to leave this room are what we agree on"), analytic approach ("facts are friendly"), end-product orientation ("everyone gets assignments and does them"), constructive confrontation ("no finger pointing"), and, often the most important, contributions ("everyone does real work").
• Set and seize upon a few immediate performance-oriented tasks and goals.
"There is no such thing as a real team without performance results, so the sooner those results occur, the sooner the team congeals."
• Challenge the group regularly with fresh facts and information. "Teams err when they assume that all the information needed exists in the collective experience and knowledge of their members."
• Spend lots of time together. "Creative insights as well as personal bonding require impromptu and casual interactions just as much as analyzing spreadsheets and interviewing customers."
• Exploit the power of positive feedback, recognition, and reward. "Positive reinforcement works as well in a team context as elsewhere."
Teams that run things.
In this category, size does not matter. "Whether it is in charge of thousands of people or just a handful, as long as the group oversees some business, ongoing program, or significant functional activity, it is a team that runs things." Too often, teams that run things "confuse the broad mission of the total organization with the specific purpose of their small group...." The way around this problem? "Make sure the team succeeds in identifying specific purposes and goals."