THREE TROUBLING TRUTHS ABOUT TEAMS
If there’s one area of organisational development that is subject to fuzzy thinking, it’s that of teamwork. Values, behaviours and culture are all close contenders, but you just can’t go past the feel-good fluffy-isms of rah-rah team-building and group hugs.
So the next salvo in my campaign to sort the management wheat from the chaff (or more likely, fluff) focuses on teams and teamwork …
1. Resist Your Pet Peeves: Place People for Skill and Talent
Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s, was a notoriously fastidious individual obsessed with cleanliness: he threatened, for example, to sack people who left their paper cups around the office. His preoccupation with personal grooming sometimes crossed the line of personal privacy: he told his managers to trim their nose hairs or brush their teeth. He forbade facial hair of any kind, even in the 1970s when it was fashionable.
Yet, despite these deep-seated idiosyncrasies, he still managed to pull together, in McDonald’s formative years, one of the most diverse and effective management teams. Suppressing his own personal likes and dislikes, he (in the words of one vice chairman) “… surrounded himself with individuals whose talents were absolutely necessary to make McDonald’s a success, even though their personalities conflicted sharply with his own”.
Still, you can imagine it wouldn’t have been easy. During the height of the Vietnam War when long hair was a common antiestablishment symbol, Kroc spotted his new advertising manager Barry Klein across the other side of the car park sporting his shoulder length hair. Kroc, of course, hated long hair, but he knew that Klein had played a part in the creation of the Ronald McDonald character. Instead of firing him (as Kroc was wont to do) he grumbled to an associate “The son of a bitch better be good.”
The temptation is of course to recruit in your own likeness: such corporate in-breeding leads to the same mediocrity as its genetic counterpart.
The best team-building, by contrast, entails recruiting people for their ability to contribute to what is needed to build and sustain performance, rather than whether they conform to someone’s pet peeves.
2. Teams are About Performance and Results, Not Bonding
I’ve written elsewhere about the Business Plan Review (BPR) meeting instituted by then Ford CEO Alan Mulally, and held every Thursday at 8am. At this forum, performance across every geographic sphere and product line is reviewed; senior managers from all profit centres and functional areas are present either in person or remotely.
In a revealing comment in an interview, Mulally commented of the BPR that it is “… a kind of status check. It is both a strategic plan and a relentless implementation plan.”
I think there is a stroke of brilliance in this. Most organisations safely entomb their crystalline strategic plans in a folder in the bottom drawer, while implementation lurches along from crisis to crisis; consequently there’s a yawning chasm between them. What better way to bridge that chasm than by a weekly meeting with all the key players checking in on performance and course-correcting as needed?
Clearly, Mulally’s approach has worked. Here’s how one journalist described the legacy of the BPR just before Mulally retired last year, leaving Ford in a very strong financial and competitive position:
The Thursday meetings are credited with driving a reliable and transparent process for running Ford’s global operations and enabling Ford’s senior leadership to work closely together and act decisively on its plan.
That, I maintain, is how you build and maintain a team.
Here’s the terrible truth: we don’t come to work to be part of a team: we come to work to contribute to the accomplishment of an organisation’s goals. Teams are simply a way of realising that, a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.
One of the most robust and replicated pieces of research in organisational psychology – Herzberg’s work on motivation – found that work relationships are sources of dissatisfaction (when they go wrong) rather than sources of motivation and satisfaction (when they go well). Teams are, in Herzberg’s words, ‘hygiene factors’ rather than motivators.
It is achievement, recognition, the nature of the work, responsibility, advancement and growth that motivate people at work; teams are important inasmuch as they facilitate these things. Other than that, they’re just sources of unhappiness as people come into contact with each other and inevitably generate friction.
This is not to say that work can’t be fun of course. It’s just that it’s fun directed towards meeting particular performance outcomes.
Another implication: the high of a team bonding session from going orienteering together on the weekend will very quickly evaporate if organisational performance is poor and work processes are broken – a situation which will be all too apparent when the team returns to the office on Monday morning. Real team bonding occurs when group efforts are oriented to collaboration on performance and process, rather than embarrassing party games and group hugs.
3. A Good Team Acts as a Shock Absorber
I only take ill very rarely, but one winter a few years back I had a fit of hiccupping which lasted a full week. (If you think hiccupping for long periods during the day is exhausting, try doing it at night in your sleep…).
Not surprisingly, I couldn’t work. The team I worked in was staffed with competent and well-intended people: I parcelled up the work, which had an imminent deadline, as best I could before leaving for the doctor’s and my sick bed.
I returned to work from my sojourn in the wilderness of semi-permanent hiccupping to find that the project I was working on had been delivered on time and to a high standard, all in my absence.
This experience taught me a very real and practical facet of teams: when they work well they can absorb the effects of unforeseen incidents and contingencies.
Certainly Alan Mulally’s BPR meetings (refer above) are explicitly meant to be a means of keeping tabs on changes in the environment so as to adapt accordingly.
This aspect of teams compensating for contingency rarely receives comment, but it is vital. I am an advocate of planning but, as they say in the American military, no plan survives contact with the enemy. (Planning is important not because of the plan it produces, but because of the process of understanding the environment and how to deploy within it to realise your goals). A fully-functioning team is a key means of analysing and managing risks.
In fact, if you want to build and sustain a fully-functioning team, rather than the typical feel-good team bonding sessions, I recommend conducting a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) workshop. This is a key risk management tool in which the weak links of a process are identified and evaluated, and controls are put in place (or bolstered). It’s a great means of getting a shared view of what works and what doesn’t, and thereby providing a basis for a team’s work.
Once you’ve organised for success and collaboratively realised your performance goals, then go orienteering. The bush-bashing and group hugs are for celebrating the work of a team, rather than substituting for it.
Director I Michael Carman Consulting
PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374 I
Frederick Herzberg (1987) ‘One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?’ Harvard Business Review September-October, pp. 5 – 16.
John F. Love (1995) McDonald’s: Behind the Arches Bantam.
© Michael Carman 2015