When is a team not a team? When it is a working group and everyone acts independently.
A working group is more like a team of golfers that go off and play on their own and then get together to add up their scores at the end of the day.
A true team is more like a hockey team that plays together simultaneously, in an interactive, mutually dependent and often interchangeable way. Often, they have each other’s backs when one is in trouble.
Which of these do you most relate to?
In my career, I have worked mostly with working groups.
For instance, in one company, I was VP of Sales and we were experiencing a revenue issue. We had just had phenomenal growth in the previous 9 months but had been flat for several months in a row since then. The Sales team was bringing in deals at about the same or faster pace as the previous successful months but revenue was not growing. I approached the senior management team on several occasions and asked for help in addressing the problem as it seemed like a company-wide issue versus just a sales problem. I was hoping to explore the problem in a holistic fashion to start and drill down to the main problem over time. For instance, were we attracting and closing the right kinds of customers, were we delivering at the same level so they would keep purchasing from us, were competitors beginning to steal them away, was the product appropriate for their needs, etc.?
Instead of working together as a team, with one exception, I was told that it was a revenue problem and it was mine and mine alone to deal with.
It was sort of like being told that my side of the boat was sinking.
I tried several approaches to address it and one seemed to be working but it would eventually take several months before it began to kick in. Unfortunately for me, it did not happen fast enough and I was replaced. The company eventually grew about 300% that year.
A true team is healthy which means that there are minimal politics and confusion, high degrees of morale and productivity, and very low turnover among good employees. I have used this Tolstoy quote before and I believe it is apt here as well.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
When you compare highly functioning teams (families) they are typically doing the same things well. Those that are dysfunctional and usually less successful over time are almost always dysfunctional in their own, unique way.
Here is where many go wrong. They confuse having a smart working group with having a healthy (and smart) team.
I have never worked for a team that was not successful because it was not smart enough. On the contrary, I have worked with and for some of the smartest people in business – top 1% kind of smart. In most cases, we had a great strategy, marketing was strong and the technology was solid. In too many cases, the company failed eventually.
Most companies do not address the important issue of being healthy because they believe it is too touchy-feely or it is hard to measure. The latter is true but over time, one can see the vast differences between a company that has a smart and healthy team versus just a smart team.
As for touchy-feely, please note that this is not a bunch of people standing around arm in arm singing songs and sharing their deepest darkest secrets to each other or swinging from ropes or climbing obstacles in the great outdoors. This is a team that looks more like a hockey game where there is action! There are disagreements. It is fast-paced and probably a bit messy at times. The key difference is that it is a safe environment where everyone feels that they can speak their mind, admit their mistakes and ask for help with being seen as weak or ineffective.
On successful teams, it is clear to all that leveraging the collective intelligence of the group is a better way to solve a problem than making it the sole responsibility of the department head even if the problem lies within just one department.
Contrary to popular belief, this may be the greatest competitive differentiator that any one company can have over another. There are a limited number of strategies, marketing plans or ways to build a product. So why do some companies succeed over others when there are not that many options to choose from? I would argue that the exceptional companies succeed due to having a smart and healthy management team that is subsequently reflected in the organization as a whole.
I will leave you with this great example from a book by Pat Lencioni from whose work I base most of this post on. This story illustrates how important it is for team members to relate to each other not only on a business but a personal level to have a true understanding of the whole person which usually results in a much more productive team.
Members of an executive team at a large insurance company were struggling with their CFO, a relatively older guy who didn’t give his colleagues much freedom when it came to managing their budgets. The consensus was that he didn’t trust the people on the team to make decisions, so he felt the need to micromanage them in any situation involving expenditures. The level of frustration among the team, directed at the CFO, had been building for years and didn’t seem likely to diminish. Then the team did the personal histories exercise. When it came time for the CFO to describe his family situation and childhood, he explained that he grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and that his family was really, really poor. He had no indoor plumbing during part of his childhood, and the electrical service in his home was inconsistent at best. You’d have thought the guy grew up during the 1850s. After he finished explaining what it was like for him growing up, he did his best to make the following comment in a matter-of-fact way, though his underlying emotion was undeniable: “So that’s probably why I’m so tight with the money. I don’t ever want to be poor like that again.”The room was silent as everyone digested the subtle magnitude of that statement. It was amazing to watch the executives immediately begin to reassess their attitudes toward the CFO, and a new level of dialogue quickly ensued about the way that they discussed expenses. That would not have happened had they not taken the time to understand one another from a basic human perspective.
The Advantage, Enhanced Edition: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business – Patrick Lencioni