'The Wisdom of Teams' by Katzenbach and Smith

Book review by Jane Woolley, February 2017

Is your Insight team a real team? Or is it a fake team? 

This might sound like a daft question, but it's actually very important. 

In preparation for our next best practice report, Insight Leadership and Team Excellence, Jane Woolley has been investigating what makes some teams perform more highly than others. 

There’s some interesting thinking on the subject of teamwork in The Wisdom of Teams, written by Jon R Katzenbach and Douglas K Smith. They suggest that many groups which call themselves teams are not “real teams” as they would define them.

And they believe that this can have a negative impact on a group’s performance.

The Wisdom of Teams

Katzenbach and Smith are management consultants who have published widely on organisational performance and change management.   Their book is based on detailed research into 47 groups of people across a variety of organisations in the USA who referred to themselves as teams.  It includes a number of detailed case studies to illustrate more or less successful teams in action.

The book takes issue with the description of many of these units as “teams”. It suggests that many are just organisational groupings of staff which you might call “working groups”. 

You may be part of a working group if "the members interact primarily to share information, best practices, or perspectives and to make decisions to help each individual perform within his or her area of responsibility, without any real common purpose, common performance goals, mutual accountability or joint work-products".

By contrast, Katzenbach and Smith suggest that real teams have very particular characteristics. And real teams produce a performance dividend compared to the co-ordinated effort of individuals.

So what are the characteristics of a real team?

It is important to decide upfront whether the performance challenge you face requires a real team solution or whether a working group solution is enough.

The characteristics - or we might even call them disciplines - of a real team are:

  • A small number of people (usually fewer than 10 - more than this and it gets complicated to work together effectively)
  • With adequate levels of complementary skills
  • Who are committed to a truly meaningful common purpose
  • Who have a specific and demanding measurable performance goal (or goals)
  • Who have agreed a clear approach to working together
  • Where each member contributes an equivalent amount of real work (beyond commenting, reviewing and deciding)
  • Who are mutually accountable for the group's performance

The authors explain that there is much in modern organisations that gets in the way of adopting a real team approach, even when it is the most appropriate solution to the performance challenge. 

For a start, some people are sceptical that real teams perform better than the alternatives. 

There is also the issue that most organisations intrinsically prefer individual over team accountability for performance. 

Furthermore, the practical and emotional costs of working as a real team are high.

The benefits, though, include the bringing together of complementary skills and experiences, that team members spur each other on to overcome obstacles, that the performance focus makes teams a powerful vehicle for learning and professional development and that being in a real team is a satisfying and fun way to work.

What can Insight teams learn from it?

  • Many Insight "teams" are a team in name only.  In reality, such "teams" are actually just a working group.
  • Managing and being in a working group is quite different from leading and being part of a real team.  So decide whether your performance challenge as a group is such that you need to gain the incremental performance benefits of working as a real team or whether behaving like a working group is enough.
  • If you decide to act as a working group, ensure that time spent together is focused and necessary.  Members of a real team, on the other hand, need to spend a lot of time working together.
  • If you want to work as a real team, you must agree SMART team performance goals for which you are mutually accountable.  Goals need to be integrated with the agreed purpose of the team. The IMA recommend the use of ROAR (Return On Analysis and Research).
  • If you are exploring the idea of behaving more like a real team, consider how much having a team performance goal would change the focus of your team's work compared to now.  Does that change excite you?  Might it lead to a step-change in collective performance?
  • It is easier to work as a real team if team members have a mix of technical specialisms or are responsible for a variety of insight sources - so make that land-grab before someone else does.  Teams which only do market research are much more likely to be made up of people with similar rather than complementary skills.
  • Small is beautiful if you want to be a real team.  If your Insight function is large, you need to split into mixed skill sub-teams to take advantage of the benefits of real team working.

How can I learn more?

The IMA will publish its report, Insight Leadership and Team Excellence, on 14th June 2017 and hand out copies to all the Insight leaders who attend the Insight Management Forum event on the same day. If your company is already a member of the IM Forum then your Insight Director will be invited to this all day event.

If your company is not yet a member but you would be interested in joining us, or if you would like to receive a copy of the report, then please email info@insight-management.org to register your interest.

If you work in a client-side Insight team and you haven't yet registered to receive regular  5 Minute Insights, then please join the Insight Management Community.