Getting The Most From Teams

Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to have a cross functional work team established to tackle business challenges or drive operational improvement in current processes. Other times it is better to assign the task to an individual or to a group with a clearly defined leader. Cross functional teams provide the added benefit of brining unique perspectives from different functions (e.g. IT, operations, marketing, etc.) and from different levels (e.g. sales associates, managers, VPs, etc.) While this can be a benefit from a more thoughtful solution and better organizational buy-in, it also slows down progress. Furthermore, if teams are not properly structured and supported, they can be set up for failure and actually demoralize the team members.

Below is an interesting article on this topic posted on the FastCompany.com website.  It was co-authored by Ray Oglethorpe, President of AOL Technologies, and Jon Katzenbach, Senior Partner of Katzenbach Partners LLC.  Mr. Katzenback is one of the most respected experts in teamwork and leadership and has written many great books on these subjects.

What Makes Teams Work?

By: Regina Fazio Maruca

October 31, 2000

Unit of One

Ray Oglethorpe

President, AOL Technologies
America Online Inc.
Dulles, Virginia

What’s the secret to a great team? Think small. Ideally, your team should have 7 to 9 people. If you have more than 15 or 20, you’re dead: The connections between team members are too hard to make.

Two and a half years ago, AOL was feeling hamstrung at the technologies level. There was a bottleneck at the top. We decided to make that division team based, and created core teams that were empowered to make decisions about products.

It was the best thing that we could have done. The core teams spun off satellite teams (also made up of small groups of people) that focused on specific projects, with specific goals and expectations.

The management challenge is to understand that the people who report to you may get most of their direction from another person or from several other people: their team leaders. And people can be on more than one team, of course. It’s the manager’s job to think about whether this person is being stretched too thin, or whether that person needs some special training.

Size is the key. Have the smallest number of people possible on each team. Another rule: no delegates. You don’t want people who have to take the team’s ideas back to someone else to get authorization. You want the decision makers.

Ray Oglethorpe leads AOL Technologies, which includes the network that supports AOL’s member services worldwide, as well as host- and client-software development. Oglethorpe is responsible for maintaining and developing AOL’s core technologies and operational resources and for the company’s integrated-systems architecture. He is based in Dulles, Virginia.

Jon Katzenbach

Senior partner
Katzenbach Partners LCC
New York, New York

Teams work when they are created for the right reasons, and when they are created in the right way. The organization that I think does the best job of meeting these requirements is the U.S. Marine Corps. Most people think of the USMC as a command-and-control organization. But when they put a team together, it’s in the right place for the right reasons. The corps is extremely disciplined about assessing whether it really needs a team for the task at hand. The notion that a team is always better is misleading, yet all too often, that’s the path that managers choose.

The critical decision for any manager or leader who wants to get higher performance from a small group of people is determining whether the group should try to work as a team, or whether they should be satisfied with what I call “single-leader unit” discipline. Single-leader units are intrinsically faster and more efficient than teams. Tasks are more clearly defined by one leader, and members work on their own much of the time.

Most organizations proliferate with groups that call themselves teams but aren’t. It’s too common for single-leader units to be labeled as teams, and it’s disturbing how many managers and leaders assume that being a team is what a group effort is all about. That’s a confusing, frustrating, and costly assumption. And it causes big problems in the workplace. If a group tries to become a team when the performance challenge requires a single-leader approach, performance and morale suffer. The opposite is equally true. In fact, both miscues produce the dreaded “compromise-unit syndrome”: weak leadership, low levels of commitment, wasted time, and poor performance results.

Jon Katzenbach (jon.katzenbach@katzenbach.com) is a senior partner at Katzenbach Partners LLC, a New York-based firm that specializes in leadership, team, workforce, and organization performance. He has written Peak Performance: Aligning the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees (Harvard Business School Press, 2000); Teams at the Top: Unleashing the Potential of Both Teams and Individual Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 1998); The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (with coauthor Douglas Smith) (Harper Business, 1994); and Real Change Leaders: How You Can Create Growth and High Performance at Your Company (with the RCL team, Frederick Beckett, et al.) (Times Business, 1995).

  • Sarah Roark

    great article.

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