Myth of the team

By David J. Abbott

Business books and the management press are filled with jargon. Everyone is searching for the next mind boggling bright business idea. Ever sit in a meeting and listen to a presentation, filled with all the right corporately correct words, nodding one’s head politely, yet it was totally incomprehensible?

One of the words that managers love to lavishly inject into conversations is the word: team. Yet, when one asks a group of competent high flying Kenyan staff and managers what a team really is, 95% will get it wrong. So what is team?

Real teams perform – they don’t tell sad stories how they got dealt an unfortunate set of cards. Often one has amorphous groups that we call teams because we think the label is motivating and energising. It’s the word we use to sound good. The difference between teams that perform and groups that don’t is a subject we should all pay more attention to. Part of the problem is that “team” is a word we think we are all too familiar with.

Great majority of people will say something like: “a team is a collection of individuals committed to a common goal, or objectives”. If this is the correct definition then a group of 17 people in a matatu committed to reaching Buru Buru phase III by 9 pm is a team? One can see it in the workplace and perhaps the best example is in politics, when one gets a group of 15 people together, each with their own hidden agenda, and lust for raw power, one only has to watch to soon see everyone shooting off in their own directions. Result: chaos and self destruction. So called team of 15 quickly breaks into three factions each with their own view of life.

So what is the essential ingredient missing in a true team that delivers? Real teams in business have to be able to identify roadblocks and opportunities they face, evaluate the options they have for moving forward, be able to make trade-offs and decisions about how to take the next steps. Of course it helps for the team to have a leader to facilitate the process. Many people we call leaders don’t really fit the job description. Talking loudest or having authority does not necessarily make a manager a leader. “Task of a leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have never been” is Henry Kissinger’s thought.

Committees, task forces and councils are not necessarily teams. Groups do not become teams just because someone calls them that. You can call an old run down smoking Nissan Sunny a Lexus all you like, it won’t help.

 “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” is working definition Jon Katzenbach and Doug Smith of McKinsey & Co give. No collection of individuals ever becomes a team unless it can hold itself accountable as a team. That’s a pretty tough test – and the reason why most working groups are not teams. Think about the subtle yet powerful difference between “the boss holds me accountable” and “we hold ourselves accountable”. Accountability is at the very core of the promise we make to ourselves and others that are the foundations of effective teams: commitment and trust. Research has shown that in both business and personal relationships one factor determines how strong that relationship is. Trust is the word.

David is a director of aCatalyst Consulting:

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aCatalyst Consulting was formed to provide leading edge practical advice to clients in Kenya and East Africa. Our goal is to set a standard of excellence by working together with leaders to build winning organisations. Our intention is to work with clients make a significant difference in their performance.

aCatalyst does team buildings that wows organisations. Here’s what one of our clients had to say:

“Thanks … for such a creative and literally breathtaking venture. It was really powerful and made great impression on our young team. Looking forward to our continued business association.”

Lawrence Gikaru, Managing Director, Apex Porter Novelli