It’s about “Team”

A battery of new management books attacks the problem of how to get employees to meld into groups and still stay focused on the big corporate picture.
Paul B. BrownJuly 5, 2007

The life of any business manager would be so much more pleasant if one of the classic American myths—that of the lone inventor—were true.

If so, management could tell the people who work for them to go to their offices (or cubicles) and stay there until they came up with something that was both truly great and that would make the company gobs of money.

But recent research shows that Thomas A. Edison didn’t do much by himself; Philo T. Farnsworth can only be credited as one of the inventors of television; and not even the Wright brothers deserve all the credit for the airplane.

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If such geniuses couldn’t come up with their innovations on their own, what chances do the average Jane or Joe have?

The sad truth is that people need to work in teams. And the sadder truth is teams are often less effective than managers would like them to be. Into that vacuum has rushed a new crop of books—now in stores or soon to be—that discuss how to improve the performance of teams.

Starting at a very appropriate place—the beginning—John Stahl-Wert and Ken Jennings spin a fable about getting the most out of your workers in Ten Thousand Horses (Berrett-Koehler, $19.95).

The authors, who also wrote The Serving Leader, argue that before anything positive can happen inside a team, employees truly must be committed to the task at hand. If managers can’t create a clear, compelling reason for employees to give work their all—think of Steve Jobs’ exhortation to the workforce at Apple to “build insanely great products”—they simply aren’t going to get the best out of them. A paycheck simply isn’t enough.

What’s more, employers need to understand that the best teams aren’t going to produce success immediately, no matter what they do. As Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology at Washington University, points out in Group Genius (Basic Books, $26.95) “innovation is inefficient.” It’s best for teams to generate as many ideas as possible, and that means, by definition, many of those ideas won’t pan out.

Employers also need to know, Sawyer says, that turning up the heat simply doesn’t work. “At some companies,” Sawyer writes, “tight deadlines and long hours are a semiofficial part of the company’s philosophy, but the reality is while pressure makes people work harder, it also makes them less creative.” The focus quickly becomes meeting the deadline and not coming up with the best possible solution.

The reality is, he says, “big ideas take time.”

So, does this mean that the manager is useless in getting the most of teams? No, but Sawyer’s solution comes off a tad squishy. “The key to improved innovation is managing a paradox: establishing a goal that provides a focus for the team—just enough of one so that team members can tell when they move closer to a solution—but one that is open-ended enough for problem-finding creativity to emerge.”

The best book of the bunch lays out a framework for how teams can zero in on the most effect focus. In X-Teams (Harvard Business School Press, $29.95) MIT Professor Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman of INSEAD, an international business school, say that if the team is solely focused on itself, it doesn’t matter how well its members get along, how clear its roles and goals are, or how well deadlines are met. Odds are it’s not going to succeed.

Why? Because the world doesn’t stand still while a team works on a project. The priorities of management shift and customer needs evolve, and the team’s objectives need to evolve as well.

That’s why Ancona and Bresman use the term “X-teams” in the title of their book: the X stands for the need to be externally focused. Team members, they say, need to work outside the boundaries of the team as well as inside them.

The authors lay out a three-part strategy for making X-teams work effectively. The team:

• Needs a high level of external activity, which means team members spend significant amounts of time with top management, searching around the organization for people who can help the team and help with customers.

• Must execute traditional team functions—hitting deadlines; meeting objectives—well.

• Should remain flexible at all times, recognizing that its original objective may change over time.

The authors make the “how to” of doing all three things, however, sound too simple. It’s all well and good to say—as they do—that the team must create extensive ties to “useful outsiders,” be self-governing, and let team members come and go as needed. But doing all that in practice isn’t as easy as they describe. Nevertheless, their central point about where teams should place their focus is sound.

While the authors of first three books take a tactical approach to getting the best out of teams, Rutgers Professor Charles Heckscher uses a much more holistic and theoretical attack in The Collaborate Enterprise (Yale University Press, $38).

The book is extremely academic—some 50 pages are devoted to notes on the research, sources, and bibliography—and the writing is far from sprightly. That said, he makes a significant suggestion: If we truly want employees to collaborate, employers need to overhaul the way organizations operate.

Specifically, employers must move from a bureaucratic structure to an organization that uses fluid and far-flung teams that involve everyone across the entire company. In other words, people should have the chance to improvise instead of always being required to follow a script.

Heckscher, who doesn’t have a blueprint for how to put such an organization together, readily recognizes the difficulties such a structure would create. The problem, he writes, is “not just one of structure, but of transforming the background conditions—the infrastructure—that determine when and how people can trust each other, understand each other, and work productively together.”