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Teamwork and the Common End

A recent Wall Street Journal article cited the fact that the average NBA team uses nearly 500 different player combinations over the course of a professional basketball season. Using pattern-detecting software, team executives are analyzing these combinations to identify their most effective teams.1

From the sports team locker room to the corporate conference room, the concept of teamwork has never been more frequently cited as a factor for success and understanding the factors that determine team success has never been more critical.

Getting a group of people together is the easy part. Creating a team and leading your team to achieve results takes planning, analysis and answers to fundamental questions: What does the team need to accomplish? Are there certain tasks that are more effectively accomplished by teams than by individuals? If the work is best accomplished by a team, how do I bring people together and keep them focused on achieving results?

"Understanding the factors
that determine team success
has never been more critical."

Consider the following company scenario: Eight people meet to determine if the company should develop a new product targeting a potential market opportunity. Members of the group come from diverse functions: marketing, IT, operations, customer service, R&D, sales and senior management.

After three days of meeting and often heated discussion, the committee chairman states, "So we need to develop and launch this product within six months. Does everyone agree?" Everyone agrees. Six months later, nothing substantive has been done, and no one seems to know why nothing has happened. What went wrong?

We've all experienced the consequences of ineffective teams: teams that could not reach agreement; teams that got sidetracked by political agendas or unproductive behaviors; and teams that seemed to lack a sense of purpose. The typical reaction to these situations is that it might have been better to have one person accomplish work alone.

Two key issues for executives who assign or lead teams are: first determining whether the work requires a team; and if so, organizing the team to accomplish a clear common end.

Teamwork vs. Individual Work. Despite the workplace emphasis on creating teams, at least 80% of work is accomplished by individuals working alone. If the work requires specific specialist knowledge, and is a repeatable, routine activity, it may be better accomplished by an individual, not a team. For example, creating a monthly spreadsheet analyzing expenses to budget does not require a team. The activity can easily be accomplished by an individual with the right specialist knowledge.

In general, the less routine the activity, and the more it requires multiple forms of specialist knowledge, the more likely a team will be required. The significant questions an executive needs to ask are: 1) Is more than one person needed to provide the specialist knowledge and perspective required to perform this work? 2) If so, how do I organize the team so they can accomplish what needs to be done?

Organizing for a Common End. How a team organizes determines its effectiveness. Many teams, like the eight-person team in our example, are ineffective because they either are unable to organize effectively themselves, or they are not provided with this organization by the person who created the team.

It is often assumed that teams will simply figure out, through trial and error, how to organize effectively. But the results of trial and error can be disastrous. When creating a team, an executive/leader can guide the team toward effective organization considering three questions:
  • What does the team need to accomplish? (What problem must they solve? What is their common end?)

  • Is everyone on the team willing to serve and do what it takes to accomplish this end?

  • How are the team members going to communicate effectively to accomplish this end?
Whether you are creating the team or leading the team, understanding the answers to these questions will help provide the focus and direction necessary to achieve results.

1"The NBA Tries to Make Teamwork a Science," by Russell Adams, The Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2005

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