Last Updated Apr 14, 2008 6:51 PM EDT
It's a scenario every top manager knows well: The
organization needs to move quickly toward a new, mission-critical objective,
and it's up to him or her to draft and manage the right team of
go-getters to lead the effort.
Yet many team leaders never hit their goals – not
because they lack talent on their staffs, but because they're naive
to the complexities of team dynamics. Smart managers understand what type of
group model best suits the task, what key skills to look for (and which to avoid),
and how to coax top performances from everyone starting from day one.
Start with the Task, Not the Team
Goal: Decide whether you need a team at all.
You’ve just received a new set of marching orders, but
do you really need to launch and manage a team to carry them out? After all,
shouldn’t well-managed organizations be capable of hitting ambitious
“I try to take attention away from the notion that
teams are always good,” says Zia Khan, principal in the San Francisco
office of Katzenbach Partners, an organizational consulting firm with clients
that include Aetna and Pfizer. “Strong-performing organizations don’t
have teams running around all over the place. They are disciplined enough to
determine whether it’s more efficient to start a team.”
So how do you know if your task calls for team treatment? Khan
asks clients to wrestle with three initial questions:
Do you know how to get the job done? Straightforward,
clearly defined tasks are better suited to what Khan calls a leader-led
group, in which members work individually on specific tasks and
report back to a top manager. If the task or process is unfamiliar, he
recommends a real team, which has defined roles but a more fluid,
Does the job require constant collaboration? Do
colleagues need to work together to solve problems and deliver their work as a
group? That calls for a real team. If colleagues will carry out key tasks
individually, a leader-led process is the faster, smarter approach.
Do you have a leader? There’s an obvious but
important point here: Leader-led groups require a strong boss –
someone who understands roles, communicates well, knows what needs to be
delivered and when.
Here are a couple of examples of tasks and the working group
types that best suit them.
Task No. 1: You run an accounting department for a
company that has just won several new accounts from a major client. You’re
familiar with the work that will be involved in scaling up, and you know just
who in your organization will likely handle each critical task. This won’t
require much in the way of meetings or brainstorming, just delegating to people
within your group and checking in on their progress.
TEAM MODEL: Leader-led
Task No. 2: An engineer built a prototype for a
product that is unlike anything your company has made before. The process for
bringing it to market is equally new and unproven. You have an idea of who can
help guide its development, but roles will likely change as the project
evolves. This task is best suited to forming a team with collaborative problem
solvers who will share responsibility for the project’s success –
or its failure.
TEAM MODEL: Real team
Draft Your Players
Goal: Fill key roles to help your team keep moving
Many managers stumble right out of the gate when pulling
together a team for the first time. They often assemble teams that reflect the
structure of the greater organization rather than the needs of the task at
hand. It’s a gesture of diplomacy, to be sure, but it rarely gets the
job done. “We call it the United Nations factor,” Khan
says. “Picture all of these representatives from different
departments sitting behind their little flags.”
In drafting team members, forget trying to mix and match just
vocational skills – work styles and interpersonal skills are just as
important. London Business School management professor Lynda Gratton explains
that some members should be strong internal cooperators while others –
called boundary spanners – need to be adept at reaching out to people
and resources outside the group.
In her book,
Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces, and Organizations Buzz with Energy –
And Others Don’t,” Gratton points out that the cooperative team members bring interpersonal skills –
effective communication, problem solving, and conflict resolution –
to the table. Boundary spanners, meanwhile, pull in fresh ideas and insights
from any source – inside or out.
While drafting your players, swear allegiance to the
smaller-is-better rule. A team should top out at around 10 or 12 people, Khan
says. This is a good number for maintaining clarity of purpose and role, good
communication, and personal investment in the team’s success. At
FedEx Kinko’s, for example, Sherry Vidal-Brown, vice president of
human resources, adds that if her team’s purpose is brainstorming,
she’ll invite up to 15 employees, but if the task needs to be done
quickly, she caps the team at six.
Danger! Danger! Danger!
Great Teams Aren’t Necessarily Happy Ones
Part of good teamwork is getting along with your colleagues,
but don’t mistake critical cooperation for unnecessary bonhomie.
Members of successful teams often don’t need to spend time together
after-hours – or even like each
In fact, creative energy and innovation often are fueled by some
degree of conflict. Khan explains: “You can have people who don’t
like each other and still have a great team, as long as they respect each
other.” Managers can foster that respect by choosing people with
complementary skill sets, communicating what skills everyone brings to the
table, setting a tone for open communication from the start, and establishing
expectations for behavior and cooperation.
Make Sure Everyone’s a Player
Goal: Rally your team around a vision with clearly
Remember how the so-called “Dream Team” of
men’s basketball finished with a humiliating bronze medal in the 2004
Olympics? It was a group packed with NBA stars and coaches but bereft of
critical team dynamics. Khan and others refer to that team as a cautionary tale
to corporate managers: No matter how talented a team you pull together, if
members don’t understand what type of contribution is expected of
them, they’ll turn in a forgettable performance.
So what is a team leader’s hedge against such
disasters? He or she must clearly explain objectives, demand equal input from
all members, and make it clear that passive participation isn’t
allowed. “One important challenge is to limit the number of so-called
spectators,” says Margaret Neale, professor of organizational
behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “By the end of the
first meeting, everyone should have spoken at least once. If a team member
remains a spectator after that, that’s someone you don’t
Be explicit and consistent about performance expectations from
the start: A happy and productive team member is one who is sure he or she is
making a difference.
When in Doubt, Juggle the Lineup
Great team managers can often become victims of their own
success. They find a formula for running projects or campaigns, and those that
work the best serve as models for future projects. “Successful teams
get enamored of their own success,” Neale explains. “They
want to keep doing things the way they have been doing them, which is fine as
long as the environment doesn’t change. But if it does, sometimes you
need to bring a new person on to make the old-timers question the accepted ways
of doing things.”
At Neo, Ogilvy & Mather’s search-marketing
division, no one stays on a piece of work for more than two years – a policy that helps the company
constantly stoke ad campaigns with fresh ideas. “We make innovation
part of the routine,” says Greg Smith, Neo’s chief
operating officer. “Everyone is held accountable for thinking in an
innovative way. Ideas may come out of left field, but who wants to use last
Allow Your Team to Fail – Then Discuss Why
Goal: Don’t cling to unrealistic objectives;
take them up when there’s more time.
One of the biggest reasons corporate teams fail is an
unwillingness to sacrifice best-case scenarios in order to reach the final
goal. Managers too often get caught up in grandiose objectives that don’t
match changing time constraints. “In every success, some stretch objectives
are abandoned, which is the right thing at the time,” says Jay Kidd,
executive vice president of strategic operations at Network Appliance.
When the team has achieved a level of success, the manager can
reintroduce more challenging objectives or new ideas. Kidd says, “A
successful team will be more ready for a challenge than a challenged team will
Once the task is complete and you have some time to look back,
managers should openly discuss successes and failures with the team. “Creating
a context where the team can talk about performance is crucial,”
Gratton says. Her team uses a 360-degree evaluation tool that solicits feedback
from members, leaders, and clients. Obtaining feedback from various sources
keeps each person informed about which traits benefit the team and which areas
“It’s better to over-communicate and be as
transparent and honest as possible,” Kidd says. He says he makes sure
his teams are clear on how they can win – and if he finds a team
struggling, he’s the first to call a meeting to explain why.
More Resources on Team-Building
Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces, and Organizations Buzz with Energy –
and Others Don’t.” Berrett-Kohler, 2007.
Katzenbach, Jon R.; Douglas K. Smith.
Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization.” HarperCollins, 2006.