The Wisdom of Teams is a true classic among Twentieth Century business books. Based on detailed interviews with 47 teams across the US, it uncovers the wisdom of what teams can achieve, and how they can perform at their best.
The authors of The Wisdom of Teams acknowledge that what they discovered is both obvious, in that we recognise the truths straight away, and subtle, in that making sense of them in the real world can be hard. They rank their findings as both common sense and uncommon sense. And all this is as it should be. Teams are people. And people working together can be messy and hard to characterise.
So, while the book has been criticised for its obviousness, and also for being too long and sharing too many long stories, this is its nature. Real team stories show not just the obvious truths, but the subtle complexities too. Perhaps the biggest idea of the Wisdom of Teams is that there is no one Big Idea, but many smaller big ideas.
The Book and the Authors: The Wisdom of Teams
‘The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization’ (US|UK) by Jon R Katzenbach and Douglas K Smith, was first published in 1993, and remains in print over 25 years later. This is not just a reflection of the timeless appeal of its subject matter. It also reflects the quality and depth of the research and thinking that pervade it.
The authors were consultants with McKinsey and Company – Katzenbach was still with them at the time. This gave them access to an astonishing array of case studies on which they built their book.
Why do we Need Teams?
Perhaps the first big idea is that the wisdom of teams lies in their unique potential to deliver results that go beyond what individuals can achieve. The first sentence of the introduction to Part One seems to sum this up nicely.
‘Teams outperform individuals acting alone or in larger organizational groupings, especially when performance requires multiple skills, judgments, and experiences.’
Teams offer many benefits beyond the performance of their set tasks: development of individual members, enhanced organisational culture, solving challenging problems, and taking robust decisions.
What is a Team?
The definition Katzenbach and Smith developed for a team is carefully considered, and has become a standard:
‘A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.’
This encompasses three necessary conditions for a team, which the authors sum up in a powerful diagram at the start of the book.
The Evolution of Teams
The definition also leads to another iconic illustration in The Wisdom of Teams. At the start of Part Two is the team performance curve that shows the evolution from a working group to a high-performance team.
- Working Group: Group members’ main interaction is to share information, best practices, and ideas, to make decisions. The main function is in helping individuals perform within their own domain of responsibility.
- Pseudo-team: These don’t share a sense of purpose nor hold one another accountable. They merely work together under the label of a team, while individuals each try to demonstrate their own strengths.
- Potential Team: This type of group is trying to improve its performance. But they don’t yet have the clarity of purpose, collective accountability, nor the collaborative discipline they need for top-tier performance.
- Real Team: This is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.
- High-performance Team: This team goes beyond the conditions of real teams. Its members are also committed to one another’s personal growth and success. The result is a high-performance team that significantly outperforms other teams, and achieves more than external observers would have predicted.
How to Build a High Performing Team
The Wisdom of Teams is full of valuable takeaways and tips. Each of them draws from numerous case studies, so the ideas are not simplistic, even though they are often simple. But, we have limited space. So, I cannot share all my favorite ideas, and neither can I develop them well. I do recommend you read The Wisdom of Teams for yourself (US|UK).
Challenge and Success are the Strongest Motivators
I’ll cheat and combine the first two of the four key lessons the authors spell out in Chapter 1. The Wisdom of Teams finds that teams are energised by significant challenges, and this resonates with what we understand about flow states. This first lesson links nicely to the second that it’s a strong performance ethic that drives team performance, rather than a team ethic. Both are important, but the drive for performance can stimulate the shared direction and mutual accountability.
So, What Does This mean about Individuals?
The authors say that individualism need not get in the way of team performance. Indeed, the team needs complementary skills, so you need individuals, not clones. It’s when you can harness individual drive to a common purpose that a team starts to emerge.
Top-Team: A Contradiction?
Teams at the top are the hardest to make work. Because the more senior people tend to display a greater degree of individualism. It’s often the drive that got them there. The solutions seem to include smaller teams, and a more collegiate atmosphere, where the CEO allocates leadership roles out to their colleagues, rather than keeping them. But the key to me is subordinating self-interest. And for that, I believe the secret is in observing patterns of behaviour through a career, rather than focusing on the immediate impact at selection.
Skills not Personalities
One of the findings has a modern resonance in work published by Google. Personality has little importance in creating a team dynamic. Skills mix is more important. As their Triangle Diagram illustrates, this drives performance and work results. It’s a finding that seems to fly in the face of Team Role models like that of Belbin and Margerisson-McCann. I think the resolution is that these are not models of psychological styles or true personalities, but of work role preferences. Both models allow that we shift our preferences to fit our situation. So, they are really about which of our skills we prefer to deploy.
What is Your experience of the Wisdom of Teams?
We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.
To learn more…
The Teamworking Pocketbook is full of tips, techniques, and tools for all those involved in making teams come alive.
The Virtual Teams Pocketbook is full of tips, techniques, and tools on managing remote teams and leading groups of people who mostly work apart.
The Teambuilding Activities Pocketbook is full of tips and easy to use activities for managers and team leaders, to shape and inspire your teams.