Sunday, December 25, 2011

Can You Have the Perfect Team?

Following on from the 18th December, I found a great article by Saj-Nicole Joni and Damon Beyer (2009) where they remind us that “when Doug Conant left his job as president of Nabisco to take on the CEO role at Campbell Soup in 2001, he stepped into the wrong fight. Campbell was one of the world’s poorest performing food companies, and its managers were consumed by infighting over who was to blame. Conant understood that his immediate priority was to manage internal and external tensions the company was facing, while fundamentally rebuilding employee morale. In his first 90 days he set out to create what he called a tapestry of expectations, so everyone in the organisation could know where the company was going,” (p.54).

Interestingly, in an interview with Dianu Coutu, J. Richard Hackman the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at Harvard University mentions that “most of the time research shows that team members don’t even agree on what the team is supposed to be doing. If the leader isn’t disciplined about managing who is on the team and how it is set up, the odds are slim that the team will do a good job,” (p.100).

Hackman gives leaders five tips for how to build a team;

1) Teams must be real. People have to know who is on the team and who is not. It’s the leader’s job to make that clear.

2) Teams need a compelling direction. Members need to know and agree on what they’re supposed to be doing together. Unless a leader articulates a clear direction, there is a real risk that different members will pursue different agendas.

3) Teams need enabling structures. Teams that have poorly designed tasks, the wrong number or mix of members or fuzzy and unenforced norms of conduct invariably get into trouble.

4) Teams need a supportive organisation. The organisation context – including the reward system, the human resource system and the information system – must facilitate teamwork.

5) Teams need expert coaching. Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes – especially at the beginning, midpoint and end of a team project.

Part of the problem with team performance is, as I’ve mentioned before, organisations seem to focus on individual performance much more than ‘team’ performance. Individuals are formally appraised, yet few teams get the same formal appraisal. Training and development programmes are developed around individual needs, yet rarely developed around ‘team’ needs. So until teams are appraised and developed as an entity, then one is unlikely to see optimal team performance – which implies suboptimal team decisions.

Richard Hackman highlights that ”the challenge for a leader is to find a balance between individual autonomy and collective action. Either extreme is bad, though we are generally more aware of the downside of individualism in organisations, and we forget that teams can be just as destructive by being so strong and controlling that individual voices and contributions and learning are lost. Where, for example, being a team player can be valued so strongly that individuals self-censor their contributions for fear of disrupting the team harmony” (p.105).

The ‘perfect’ team should be assessed by its output rather than how harmoniously it works together. A team should be looking for constructive input and to be challenged, so that it can consistently come up with the optimum solutions for the organisation. That will mean on occasion there will be strong disagreement about the way forward, not because a group or individual is wrong, but simply that there is often more than one business approach that will give the sought after outcome.

As Joni and Beyer state “it’s time to stop candy-coating what’s taught to executives and their direct reports. It’s time to stop pretending that conflict-free teamwork is the be-all and end-all of organisational life. It’s time to own up to the truth that the right balance of alignment and competition is what pushes individuals and groups to do their best. Let’s be clear; alignment is important, but the purpose of alignment is not harmonious agreement. It is to sustain an organisation’s ability to fight for what really matters, and to pull everyone together again once the fight is over,” (p.50).


Coutu, D and Beschloss, M. (2009). Why Teams DON’T Work. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87, Issue 5, p.98-105.

Joni, S.A. and Beyer, D. (2009). How to Pick a Good Fight. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87, Issue 12, p.48-57.

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