How teamwork translates into performance: A new book suggests that definition is the first step to success. Roger Trapp reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN management gurus describe the organisations of the future they almost invariably use such concepts as 'networked', 'clustered', 'non-hierarchical' and 'horizontal'. While these terms differ in scope, they are all based on the idea that teams are more powerful than individuals.

Modern executives have not been slow to acknowledge that teams are crucial. The only problem, say the authors of a new book, is that many are confused about just what a team is.

'Some mentally lump them together with task-forces, committees, departments and other group forms. Others think of them not in organisational terms but as the embodiment of values such as teamwork, co-operation or empowerment. Still others believe that merely calling a group a team makes it one. It does not,' said Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith, consultants with McKinsey.

They suggest in their book, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organisation, that there is a threshold that such a group must cross before it becomes a real team. Their definition of groups that have cleared the hurdle is 'a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and an approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable'. And each component, the authors say, is worthy of careful attention.

They are convinced that the ability of top managers to capture the potential of real team performance at critical points in their organisations depends on their understanding and enforcement of the definition. Failure can lead to a belief that a company has something that in fact it does not.

To explain this, Messrs Katzenbach and Smith have developed a simple framework they call the performance curve.

It has five key points: the first is the 'working group', which is a collection of individuals for whom there is no significant incremental performance need or opportunity requiring them to become a team.

Then there is the 'pseudo team', in which each member's individual performance is affected detrimentally while there is no joint benefit. The problem is a lack of focus on a common purpose or set of goals. Most people have experience of such groups, with their confusion over purpose and inability to handle personality difficulties.

Third is the 'potential team', a collection of individuals for whom there is a clear performance need and who are seriously seeking to improve their impact on it. Typically, though, they lack clarity about their aims as well as the discipline needed for a common working approach. Nor have they established the final criterion, mutual accountability.

The authors' experience suggests that many organisations are full of potential teams. This should greatly concern managers since the biggest chance of really improving performance comes between this point and the next, the 'real team', which exactly fits the definition above.

There is a point beyond this: the 'high-performance team'. This group not only meets the conditions of real teams but is also deeply committed, even beyond the team set-up, to the personal growth and success of its members. And it significantly outperforms other teams.

This all has a convincing feel, especially when the authors use as an example of the concept's efficacy the experience of Motorola, the electronics company with a well-known commitment to quality and improving performance.

Teams in organisations without the culture of, say, Motorola, may need to be 'more resilient, more conspicuous - even more heroic', but they can have a disproportionate effect on a company's performance and the environment for teams that may follow.

But if the company's leaders do not demand a total commitment to performance by their teams, these efforts will lead to more cynicism, frustration and aversion to risk.

On the other hand, if just one team succeeds it can help 'an indifferent or confused company begin to clarify its direction and recover its sense of performance,' the book says.

'For successful companies, as well as for those in trouble, this is why teams matter.'

'The Wisdom of Teams' is published in the US by Harvard Business School Press. It is due to be published here later this year.