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The Importance of the Team

The Star Trek Team

At the core of most of the important work done in this world you will find a small, multi-skilled team with effective leadership focused on delivering a product of value to a customer.

Note that teams such as these are found in contexts as different as Jazz bands, Rock groups, filmmaking, Agile Software Development and Lean Manufacturing, to name just a few obvious examples.

It’s now commonplace in business to take the work of teams for granted, but in my experience that passive acceptance doesn’t always translate into active support.

Let me break my opening assertion down, and explain the significance of each of its components.

“A Small Team”

I mean something in the range of 3 - 15 members. Such a team, if organized well, has the following advantages.

  • Diversity of knowledge, abilities and perspectives.
  • Joint decision-making following joint discussion and consideration of alternatives.
  • Bonding and cohesion of team members, including reinforcement of shared team norms.
  • Social motivations for completing important work.
  • Direct communication between team members.

What’s magic about the size? Less than three, and you have a duet rather than a group: it’s more about the individuals and their relationship, and less about a team identity. More than fifteen, and it’s hard to maintain direct communication between team members. (And fifteen, by the way is an upper limit: for some sorts of teams, that may be too large a number.)

“Multi-Skilled”

For the sort of team I’m talking about, it’s important for the team to be relatively self-sufficient, which means that all or most of the skills important to the team need to be available within the team. This is different from the oboe section within an orchestra, or a steno pool, or any sort of pool of resources sharing similar skills. A multi-skilled team is empowered to act as a collective. A group of people with similar skills will not achieve the sorts of benefits I’ve listed above for a small team.

“With Effective Leadership”

A team can be self-organizing, but it cannot generally be self-governing. Some leadership can be internal to the team, and some of it can come from outside the team, but effective leadership is generally required in order for a team to be consistently productive. The product development team needs its Steve Jobs. The jazz band needs its Miles Davis.

Ineffective leadership comes in several common forms. It can be too passive. It can be too self-absorbed, ignoring signals from the team itself, from its customers or from its partners. It can be too diffuse, consisting of too many leaders, from different functions and/or levels, who are not in alignment with each other.

Certainly one of the important functions of leadership is to make difficult decisions concerning the team’s direction. Sometime this involves saying “no” to some options that the team might otherwise pursue, if left to its own devices.

“Focused on Delivering a Product of Value to a Customer”

There are four important but closely related elements that I’m grouping together here:

  • Focus: the entire team must be focused on a common goal.
  • Product: A concrete product forces hard decisions to be made, and forces the team to actually produce a tangible result.
  • Delivery: The team must deliver something in a limited timeframe, again enforcing a degree of discipline.
  • Customer: The product must be something of value to a real customer. Without the ability to visualize such a recipient, it is hard for the team to make the sort of often difficult trade-off decisions involved in any important work.

What Can Be Debated

I’ve tried to summarize above many of the key learnings about effective teams that I’ve gleaned over several decades, based on my experience working as a team member and team leader, and also based on my observations and broad study of the topic in multiple contexts.

But, of course, in this brief piece I’ve just scratched the surface of the subject. Whole books have been written on the topic of teams. There is lots of room for discussion and debate on the various elements of teams and team building.

What Cannot Be Debated

At this late date, it’s probably not useful to waste time debating whether teams like these are important.

Some would say that there is “magic” in such teams, but I think it’s probably fairer to say that there’s not much of lasting value produced without such teams.

Wherever we look today, especially when we dig beneath the surface of any of our modern success stories, we find abundant evidence of the operation of teams that fit the description I’ve provided above.

Heck, I’ve so far avoided any mention of sports, but I think much of our obsession with this endeavor can be traced back to the importance of teams in our society. Every game day we see this fundamental reality played out on the field in front of us — with all of the corporate and societal trappings stripped away — laying bare the workings of two teams, with their members, their diverse skills, their leaders, their activities, their collaboration and, ultimately, their results, all there for us to observe and discuss.

Implications for Your Organization

Much of what I’ve said above is probably fairly non-controversial.

And yet…

What are the implications for the larger organization?

It is probably not too much of a leap to say that successful organizations will be those who do the most to foster, sustain and nurture such teams.

Yet how many organizations embrace this truth as one of their core operating principles?

Instead leaders of large organizations often seem to lose grasp of what’s going on within their teams, and as a result lose track of the effects their decisions may have on the operation of these teams. After all, if leaders observe the business norms of interacting only with those immediately above, below or adjacent to them in the organization, with only occasional ceremonial contact with any working teams, it is all to easy for them to insulate themselves from first-hand knowledge of what’s happening at this level of their organizations.

I think this is one reason why the the videos on Spotify Engineering Culture have been so popular. There are a lot of great ideas here, but many team members simply seem to like the fact that a major company thinks their teams are so important that they will release content entirely focused on the way their teams function.

Let me return to my original assertion:

At the core of most of the important work done in this world you will find a small, multi-skilled team with effective leadership focused on delivering a product of value to a customer.

If this is true, then you need to ask yourself: what is your organization doing today to create, nurture and sustain these sorts of teams?

September 17, 2015

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