When Teams Don’t Work

When Teams Don’t Work by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by kosmonautica. Available at Flickr.com.

Teams. “Together Everyone Achieves More.” There is a widespread belief that work should be done in teams and that it is better for everyone to put their heads together to the job done, whatever it is. The idea that teams are the preferred way to work has been with us for decades. Today, I want to remind everyone that teams are often overused and misused. Teams are not always the best approach!

Recently, I’ve seen some leaders make very “interesting” choices regarding the use of teams. (Interesting = poor.) So, this is a quick reminder to leaders that before you assign work to a team you should conduct a quick assessment of the situation.

Can the work be successfully completed by an individual?

What is your objective? What “product” are you looking for? If the work can be accomplished by an individual, don’t use a team. This is often the case when you need to gather information or investigate an issue to produce a report. I’ve seen leaders give these responsibilities to teams and one of two things happen: 1) All the work gets done by one person (who then resents the others on the “team”). Or 2), most or all of the people get involved, but only half-heartedly because no individuals full effort is required. Both situations are demotivating and may reduce the quality of the product they produce.

Sometimes an individual will need to solicit information from others to complete the task you given them. That does not mean a team is needed, though. That individual is still primarily responsible and can work almost entirely alone to complete the work. Don’t use a team when most or all of the work can be completed by an individual.

Can the work be successfully completed by individuals who assemble their output?

In the second scenario above, where individuals half-heartedly worked together on a project, they were sort of working as a workgroup, but not a team. A workgroup exists when individuals work independently on a given project then assemble their output to create something. Workgroups work well for many workplace processes.

A classic example of a workgroup is a financial team. There are many steps involved in the handling of an organization’s financial assets. Depending on the size of the organization, this can be handled by a few people or many people. Nearly all of the work can be efficiently divided so that individuals handle specific steps in the process. When complete, the work gets handed off to the next person in the workflow. This is a very effective use of individuals in a workgroup—but it is not a team.

Does the work require the collective talents and/or collaboration of multiple people?

If the product you are looking for cannot be completed without the complementary efforts of multiple people, then you need a team. Teams are needed when success depends on the integrated use of a variety of talents. The classic example of this is any sports team. Pick your favorite team sport—football, baseball, hockey, or something else. What would happen if one person tried to take on all the responsibilities in the game? Disaster! Similarly, what would happen if, for example, Jerry Rice had been cloned and played every position, offense and defense, for the San Francisco 49ers? Even though Rice is arguably the greatest football player of all time, he (they) could not succeed as a team.

What is a team?

To properly understand how to use teams, it helps to understand the basics of what a team is. Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, in their classic book The Wisdom of Teams, indicate six elements that “define the discipline required for [effective] team performance.” They are:

  1. A small number, usually fewer than 12
  2. Members have complementary skills
  3. Members share a common purpose for the team
  4. Members share a commitment to specific performance goals
  5. Members agree to a working approach
  6. Members agree to hold one another accountable for performance1

You can see that an effective, high-performing team has a very high standard of commitment and responsibility. The best teams, through these commitments and responsibilities, can achieve fantastic results for the organization.

Very important: To help teams succeed, leaders must give them clear direction and purpose, resources and freedom to accomplish that purpose, and support when challenges arise.

To get the best results from your employees, be careful to distinguish the proper use of individuals, workgroups, and teams. When you confuse these, morale and performance suffers. When you effectively and appropriately assign work to individuals, workgroups, and teams, more will be accomplished faster and everyone will enjoy the increased effectiveness.

1: Katzenbach, Jon R. and Douglas K. Smith. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2003.

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