Leader Volume 9, Number 8
Leadership: Emerging Challenges
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
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
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.
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
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
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”
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
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
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.
efforts in the future, however, will not have the luxury of making
a one-time choice between real team and single-leader unit
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.
performance results of any small working group are more about
discipline than “togetherness,” empowerment or individual
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.