#482  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 8          August 2000

Team Leadership: Emerging Challenges
by Jon R. Katzenbach (with Stacy Palestrant)

Mr. Katzenbach is Senior Partner, Katzenbach Partners LLC, New York, NY (phone 212-213-5505).  He is author of Teams at the Top (Harvard Business Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997).

In the early 1980’s Sony was experiencing a losing streak with its computer products--many of them obsolete by the time they hit the market.  Toshi T. Doi was put in of charge of reversing the trend by creating a new line of small office computers.  One of his first acts was to gather a team of 11 engineers and inspire them to design any kind of computer they wanted with a few specifications.  Or in Doi’s words, “Pick a team from among the company misfits, and give them 100% freedom.”  The team decided (unbeknownst to top management) that instead of creating an office computer, they would create an engineering workstation.  Their excitement for the project compelled them to spend nights and weekends working, devoted to making “their dream” a reality.  In six months, they created what usually takes two years to develop--a market-ready workstation.  Within one year the product took over 20 percent of the Japanese workstation market.  It was a remarkable team accomplishment.

Toshi Doi was a team leader long before teams became a fashionable organization paradigm.  Doi instinctively realized that he would need a real team to “reverse the losing trend” in Sony’s computer products.  His attitude reflects the essential attitude for successful team leaders: This (performance challenge) is critical for my company, and I cannot succeed without the combined contributions of many.  In fact, I really need every member of the group to work with me in leading as well as doing. 

Real Teams

Doi also had to be disciplined in applying the six basics of our definition of a team: a small group with complementary skills committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Real teams are simple enough to define and describe--but they demand consistent hard work and relentless attention to the six basics.  Many leaders today understand the basics, and the particular importance of a commitment to a compelling performance challenge.   Relatively few, however, realize the importance of continuing to ensure that all members of the team apply the essential discipline.  Instead, they rely on the instincts and goodwill of members.  When the performance challenge remains clear and compelling, such instincts can be enough.   When performance challenges are changing rapidly, however, rigorous assessment and sustained discipline become essential.  Groups become teams through disciplined action, and they sustain team performance only as long as the discipline prevails.  Team performance is characterized at least as much by discipline and hard work as it is by empowerment, togetherness, and positive group dynamics.

The paradox that executive proponents of teams face stems directly from the increasing demand for speed, responsiveness, and versatility in a rapidly changing marketplace.  Thus it becomes more difficult for senior leaders to allocate the extra time and effort, as well as take the appropriate risks necessary for team performance.  It is simply much quicker and safer to rely on individual accountability and consequence management, i.e.:  “hold someone else’s feet to the fire--put the monkey on someone else’s back.”

On the other hand, teams are becoming more central to high performing organizations.  Front-line workforce teams are commonplace in most basic industries, cross-functional teams are invariably the best way to manage across complex matrix situations, and balanced leadership systems increasingly cultivate the added leadership capacity that comes from team capability closer to the top.  All of which says that future team leaders will need to elevate the level of their game in four ways:  1) rigorously assessing and responding rapidly to “situational” team opportunities;  2) instilling self-discipline among the members, 3) shifting leadership roles more easily and broadly; and 4) learning to apply the basics in a wide variety of “virtual team” situations.

Situational Opportunities

It is no longer good enough to rely on observation and instincts to identify team opportunities and motivate team behavior.  Some very capable leaders instinctively pursue team behavior in all situations, whereas others avoid it like the plague.  Neither instinct results in “real teams in the right places at the right times,” which is what balanced leadership in high-performing organizations requires.  Moreover, getting it wrong is costly.  A team effort in a performance situation that requires single-leader clarity wastes time, frustrates members, and discourages sponsors.  A single-leader effort in a situation that warrants a real team capability constrains both leadership capacity and performance potential.  And a “compromise unit” (where the leader backs off, but elements of team discipline are not applied) combines the worst of both worlds.

Time is clearly the enemy of first-time team efforts.  It is one of the reasons why it is difficult to find real teams in time-urgent situations, like new ventures.   Groups that have never functioned together as a team need time to establish common levels of commitment as well as to learn how to shift roles and blend skills.  A single-leader unit is typically much faster than a potential team in becoming functional as a group, because the right leader can set clear goals, determine individual assignments, and hold those people accountable.   Once a group has mastered team basics, however, the single-leader approach no longer has a clear time advantage. 

Most group efforts in the future, however, will not have the luxury of making a one-time choice between real team and single-leader unit approaches.  Success in a rapidly changing marketplace will require the ability to switch behavior patterns back and forth to fit the task at hand.  Thus, it will be critical to be able to identify the conditions that warrant single-leader unit behavior, as well as those that warrant team behavior, and to modify the group’s working approach accordingly.   

Self Discipline

The collective performance results of any small working group are more about discipline than “togetherness,” empowerment or individual accountability.  But real teams require a very different kind of discipline than single-leader units. In either case, the leader may initiate the necessary discipline; but as group capabilities emerge, peer- and self-discipline come into play.  Interestingly, the U.S. Marine Corps produces some of the best examples of team performance that we have observed.  One of the reasons is the Corps’ ability to sustain a dual culture of  “command and control” along with the kind of self-control and peer-approval that bolsters performance, raises pride, and ensures real team performance where it counts.  Marines use discipline to integrate and blend real team and single-leader efforts to the ultimate benefit of accomplishing their missions better than most other major military forces.

Many team leaders find themselves victimized by applying the wrong discipline--or by simply easing-off  with respect to team basics too soon.  Hence, the group becomes less rigorous over time, and loses much of its early-acquired performance capability.  The problem can be exacerbated by increasing and confusing demands on the group. Taking team behavior for granted, by assuming performance pressures plus member goodwill will yield team performance, is dangerous.  It works only as long as the team performance challenge is clear and compelling, and the members remain vigilant in applying the basics. Perpetual self-discipline and a sense of mutual accountability that persists over time will be increasingly essential as team challenges become more varied.

Shifting Leadership Roles

A real team is never leaderless. Instead, it is able to draw on the leadership ability of each of its members at different times and in different ways.  Real teams boost their leadership capacity by shifting the leader’s role back and forth among members, depending on the task.  The leader’s mantle falls naturally on the shoulders of whichever member has the knowledge or experience most relevant to the particular issue at hand.  The higher up in the organization a particular team effort occurs, the more challenging it becomes to shift the role of leader because of ingrained habits and overwhelming time pressures.

Nonetheless, the most effective team efforts at any level in the organization demonstrate ability for any and all members to lead the group at different times.  This capability does not come easily to every team member, and often requires unique insight and support from the formal team leader and other members.  The more varied and complex team purposes and goals become, the more important it will be for every member to step up to the leadership challenges that fit his/her skills and experience.  Capitalizing on the differing leadership attributes of each team member in pursuing different collective work products will become a key characteristic of the best team leaders in the future.

Virtual Teams

Few people question the importance of virtual teaming, i.e., functioning as a team when the members cannot work in the same locale.  Virtual teams emerged long before the web, but not with nearly the frequency and abundance we see today.  This trend is being fueled by fundamental forces of globalization, merger “scaling” and speed as well as advances in technology that allow real work to take place over the Internet.  Nonetheless, team performance still requires disciplined application of the six basics.  As simple as that may appear, there are some fairly profound differences between working virtually versus working in co-located, physical and more traditional ways.

We see these differences most notably in interaction patterns, memory capacity, communication modes, and “consciousness” or awareness of key choices.  In a traditional team effort, the interaction will be an ad hoc blend of one-on-one and group, whereas the virtual situation favors one-on-ones.  In addition, memory is highly subjective since groups cover a lot of topics that are not recorded; in virtual situations, almost everything is “saved” in one form or another.  In traditional teams, communication is much more oral than written, whereas the virtual situation is the reverse.  Finally, in the physical proximity groups, critical choices are easily overlooked (e.g., real team versus single-leader behaviors--or collective versus individual work products).  In the virtual space, such choices can be presented more clearly and forcefully. 

These differences are affecting the challenge of team performance both positively and negatively.  In other words, some elements of the basics will become easier to apply, while others will become more difficult.  As a result, a variety of different tools and approaches will be required for team leaders to ensure real team efforts at the right time in the right place. 

Thus, it becomes essential to develop more rigorous methodologies along with new mechanisms and tools for assessing work-group behaviors against the specific requirements of their work/performance situations.  Potential teams and work groups will need to be able to determine what a particular group task requires in terms of speed and precision versus integration and synergy.  They also need to be able to clearly identify and self-correct behaviors that are out of alignment with those requirements.  In the past, an experienced facilitator or process observer could provide this perspective.  Going forward, there is a need for methodologies and tools that teams can readily apply themselves, and thereby self-correct and respond quickly to changing needs.  The good news is that a few of these kinds of instruments are in the developmental stages now.  The bad news is that they are not yet widely available.

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