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The New Why Teams Don't Work

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The move to teams has largely failed, say Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley, mainly because teams themselves are failing to think through the human implications of teaming. The New Why Teams Don't Work is a handbook for team members and team leaders to maintain the highest possible level of team intelligence-the skills, attitudes, and emotional flexibility to get the most out of a team's inherent differences.
Describing what teams are really like, not how they ought to be, the book teaches people how to work together to make decisions, stay in budget, and achieve team goals. Robbins and Finley show, for instance, how to get hidden agendas on the table, clarify individual roles, learn what team members expect and want from each other, choose the right decision-making process, and much more.
Updated throughout, the book includes completely new material on team intelligence, team technology, collaboration vs. teamwork, team balance, teams at the top, the team of one, plus all new and updated examples.

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31 Chapters

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chapter one The Team Ideal


A generation ago people didnt talk about teams. Oh, they existed, but they were conventional, function- bound things. There were accounting teams, finance teams, production teams, and advertising teams—all made of specialists in parallel functions or silos. Everyone on a team did pretty much the same thing.

Functional teams spent a lot of time together, and spoke the same functional language. Not having to deal with one anothers differentness, functional teams had something of a free ride.

Wow, has a lot changed since then. The conventional silo team is still out there. But it has been crowded out by scores of other kinds of teams.

There are work teams in which everyone has the same skills, but each person is assigned a specific task. There are project teams, where people with different expertise each tackle a different part of the task. There are functional teams, and there are cross-functional teams.

There are interorganizational teams and intraorganizational teams. Some teams, like Army platoons, live and breathe together. Others join together across time zones, language differences, and boundaries. There are teams that work together for twenty years and those that team up for only a minute or two, then fade away.


chapter 2 Team Instinct


You can take the view that the human race is made up entirely of individual loners, each of us making our way by ourselves, all alone in the world.

We dont.

For the most part, we are social creatures. We not only like one anothers company, we seek one another out in one situation after another. Deep down, we need this interaction, just as we need air, water, and life insurance.

This urge to connect with others is not absolutely universal. There are a few of us, scattered about, who display a lot less need for interaction than the rest of us do. And psychologists and anthropologists have indicated that a dimension of the human psyche does crave solitariness. Some people experience more of this than others.

But most of us thrive on the company of others, and few of us need more than a few hours a week all to ourselves.

We seek from the teams we belong to the same things we seek from other dimensions of life. These are the three As:

In teams we also get:

Truth is, despite that particle of us that craves isolation, our sense of ourself withers without contact with others. This is not a platitude; it has been proven many times, throughout history. The process of denying someone access to others—isolation, banishment, banning, scapegoating—has been used for centuries in many cultures as a means of punishment.


chapter 3 Individual Needs vs. Team Needs


Besides differing in degrees of teaming instinct, people on teams differ in terms of personal agendas. We make a big deal out of team objectives. Team objectives are supposed to be powerful visions that unite the members of a team and drive them on irresistibly to success.

But guess what—in teaming physics, the team objective is decidedly the weak force. The strong force remains the collection of personal wishes and wants that team members bring to the team.

Just because we are attracted to teaming up doesnt mean we set our other desires on the shelf. We dont know about you, but well be doggoned if well forsake our personal dreams for the sake of some workgroup.

So a conflict exists between individual team members goals and the overarching goal of the team itself.

And it can play out very painfully. Imagine a team of four, with the acknowledged goal of creating an e-commerce site for a conventional business—lets say consumer gardening supplies. The goal is simple: reengineer a local business to cyberspace.


chapter 4 Teamwork vs. Socialwork


Heres yet another level in which goals and needs get confused. Its a category of goals we call social-work. Socialwork is a perversion of the need to affiliate. In it, affiliation breaks free from the team objective—it is just affiliating for the fun of affiliating.

In the Stone Age, socialwork was when one caveman kept interrupting stalking the woolly mammoth to do the woolly mammoth dance. This drove the other cavemen nuts, because everyone knows you kill the mammoth first, then do your impression of it later, around the fire.

A hundred thousand years later, teams are still afflicted, at every turn, with outbreaks of the mammoth dance.

All too often, the problem isnt just one class clown who cant stick to the task—its a major contingent of fun-lovers who kill the work ethic dead. Two people with lampshades on their heads can kill any serious enterprise.

The stated purpose for a team is to gather people together and collaborate on jointly accomplishing agreed-upon team outcomes; i.e., get things done together. The purpose of socialwork, on the other hand, is to get your personal needs for affiliation met by being involved in a group.


chapter 5 Misplaced Goals, Confused Objectives


The last three chapters were about valid team objectives having to duke it out with the objectives of individual team members. This chapter is about team objectives that are suspect all by themselves.

How many times have you heard colleagues say this: The boss has given us such unrealistic objectives.

They are really saying one of three things:

If your team doesnt know where its going or what it wants the outcome to be, your best remaining option is to have everyone fall to their knees and beg the stampede to step lightly over you.

Barring divine intervention, however, your next best option is to achieve clarity on the outcome youre after, such as:

Our desired outcome is to create a leakproof disposable diaper before the snow flies.

Our desired outcome is to have fewer customers make remarks about our mothers.

Our desired outcome is to be so good at everything we do that we drive our competitor to existential despair.

The three objectives above are admittedly flip. But they have the virtue of describing not just what the outcome is, but how you will know when you have achieved it, and what it will feel like. They have a human sound, which is good, because teams are made up of human beings.


chapter 6 Bad Decision Making


There was a time in his life, back around 1970, when Mike worked as an autoclave technician at a large metropolitan hospital. Though he worked the graveyard shift, he was still astonished at the military orderliness of the sterile laboratorys work regimen. The shift supervisor watched everything like a hawk, and clocked every tray that went in or out. She and she alone filled out all requisition forms. She kept these forms on a clipboard, which she passed on at sunrise to the day shift manager replacing her. Not only was Mike not allowed to make decisions, she wasnt allowed to. It was strict.

One night, when the supervisor was on break, a nurse came dashing down the hall, in urgent need of a scrub set for some procedure. Mike swallowed hard and handed it to her, without filling out the usual paperwork. The next day he was fired for allowing supplies to leave the area without paperwork. He had to turn in his Foley clamps and surgical mask. It was all very sad. But Mike was philosophical—at least some motorcycle accident victim up in the ER got the asphalt cleaned out of his wound.


chapter 7 Empowerment Uncertainties


Between the subjects of the last two chapters, goal setting and decision making, is an enormous crevasse, into which teams fall, then fester and stink up the joint. This is the area of boundary management—or in the case of team failure, mismanagement.

Empowerment is a form of decision making not mentioned in the last chapter because it involves individual, not team decisions. Yet it is probably the most important kind of deciding that occurs on teams.

Heres the deal: Organizations create teams to achieve certain goals. They may tell the teams, usually quite vaguely, that they are empowered to some degree to do whatever is necessary to achieve the goal.

Or they may not.

Either way, the team has been set up to fail. Either the team feels it has no authority or leverage to carry out its mission, or it is confused about what its authority or leverage really amounts to.

It is deeply depressing to a team to go to all the trouble of learning how to solve a problem, only to be paralyzed, unable to implement that solution, because it doesnt know if its allowed to. Or worse, to implement the wrong (but defensible) solution because it doesnt think management will go for the right (but ambitious) one.


chapter 8 Unresolved Roles


When we were kids, we didnt worry about roles and responsibilities. We swarmed through the neighborhood, doing what we pleased or what we were told, until we got distracted and did something else. We were an army without ranks, a tribe of generalists, a corporation without job titles—a nonhierarchical, de-layered, super-flattened, inverted-pyramid, matrix/cluster mob. And we liked it.

Fast-forward to the preteam era, the 1960s and 1970s, and the workplace was lousy with roles. Every worker had a job description. Every job description described exactly what a workers tasks, roles, and working relationships were. Both, as a rule, were defined quite narrowly—second-level lab technician, plastics; assistant to first-level lab technician, plastics.

But in the team era of the 90s, job descriptions became less precise, broader. Roles are now hardly mentioned on paper. But these roles and relationships, whether committed to print or not, play important roles in successful teaming.

Implicit in the idea of teams is that people are adults. Were too grown up for the pigeonholing of conventional job descriptions and scientific management. However, many teams, in their new freedom, have reverted to swarming through the neighborhood. They are doing what they want to do, or what they are good at. Important but less desirable work is not getting done.54


chapter 9 The Wrong Policies and Procedures


One of the responsibilities Harvey had, as a rookie psychologist working for the government, was writing policies and procedures manuals (P&Ps) for groups out in the field.

Ninety-nine times out of 100, his group wrote serious, sober, usable policy books. Every full moon, however, they succumbed to the impulse to create a manual of complete gibberish, full of elliptical provisions that no team in their right mind would follow—mad, foolish, twisted, bureaucratic stuff. And, figuring no one read the books anyway, they sent them out.

Imagine their horror to discover, on field trips many months later, that these policy and procedure manuals were being treated as though they had been handed down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. People actually went out of their way to try and make the absurd nostrums work, wasting time and productivity along the way.

Harvey was not only ashamed that he had had a hand in contributing to the delinquency of our government, but he was angry at the lemmings who blindly followed the obviously idiotic policies he had scripted.


chapter 10 The People Problem


When we think about teams, we tend to picture the perfect team. Its members are autonomous, intelligent, generous-minded, and quick to fill in where others leave off. The members of this perfect team fall somewhere between angels and the characters sketched in apparel ads.

You need to take this mental picture of the perfect team, fold it into careful squares, set it on a platform, and blow it to smithereens. Because you may live to be 108, but you will never be on anything remotely like a perfect team.

Ideal teams are comprised of perfect people, whose egos and individuality have been subsumed into the greater goal of the team. Real teams—your teams—are made up of living, breathing, and very imperfect people. Even when you personally handpick a team, it is still likely to contain people that you (or other team members) will be really challenged to get along with.

Our experience is that, in the forming stage especially, nearly all team members are taken aback by the personalities of other team members: X is an asocial jerk, Y is borderline psychotic, and Z is a shameless jackass.


chapter 11 Dealing with Difficult People


Nowhere is it written that you have to get along with everyone. There are people in the world who should not, who must not, be on any team—ever. And they are not especially unusual.

In the last chapter we talked about people whose intentions toward teaming were OK, but whose ability to team successfully was hampered by differences of opinion and approach. This chapter is about people who nature did not inculcate with the instinct or the will to team.

They are not necessarily bad people, although some (the dark angels) are truly bad. All require action on the teams part—either distancing, discipline, or banishment.

On any given day, we can all be jerks—rude people unaware of how we come across. But the true team jerk goes beyond occasional jerkness to full-blown jerkhood. They are jerks par excellence. Compared to them, we are amateurs.

A team jerk is usually its most talented member. He or she may have made some very important contributions to the enterprise. Their specialty is ideas—new technologies, new products, new processes, new applications, new combinations of existing things, new marketing ideas. Extraordinarily bright and creative, they are high-achieving dynamos when motivated, giving off ideas the way regular folk emit carbon dioxide.77


chapter 12 Leadership Failure


Leadership is the tiredest word in organizational literature. It bears the burden for so much of every organizations hopes. Everyone agrees that leadership is vital to teams, like chlorophyll catalyzing the making of sugar. But what is it, exactly, and how does a team without it, get it?

Perhaps the best way to understand team leadership is to notice what happens when leadership isnt there. It isnt pretty.

Things dont happen. With no guidance, team members resort to a machine approach to getting work out the door. When in doubt, automate. Pile up product!

People are upset, disillusioned, hostile to their own enterprise. When work does get done it has a predictable character: mediocre. There is genuine despair among the team because there is no rallying point, no one to vent at, no one to intercede when things go awry, no one to get everyone back on track.

Eventually team members either explode in anger or implode in despair. Or worst of all, they decay in a lifeless orbit. Commitment and energy drain away. Slowly, individuals begin to drift away from the team. By the time the team figures out it is dead, it is really dead. But it started dying the moment its leadership came into question.


chapter 13 Faulty Vision


Ive got good news and bad. The bad news is that were lost. The good news is that were making great time. The point of this old saw is that team talent, efficiency, intelligence, and clout are pretty useless unless the team has some clue where it is going and how it is to contribute to the organizations overall strategies for success.

Were talking about vision here, one of the most misunderstood and misapplied ideas making the rounds now. Vision is not a vision statement. It is not something created in hindsight, or with an eye toward external consumption. It is not something you pay consultants $450 an hour to create for you at a weekend retreat by a warm fireplace and cash bar. It is not printed in bronze ink on a report to shareholders or in a guarantee to customers. It is not really words at all. It is a burning thought, and it exists solely in the heads (and hearts) of the team.

The vision is the thing the team exists to do, defined in ambitious form. It is the thing that leadership makes happen. Without team vision, there is no point to a team.


chapter 14 Toxic Teaming Atmosphere


You cant grow gardenias in ammonia, and you cant grow healthy teams in carbon monoxide.

Teams dont thrive in an environment hostile to teamwork. This part of the book discusses ways team environments can go awry, and how to make the air breathable again.

The most egregious toxins in team atmosphere are:

All of these dangerous gases swirl around every team at one time or another.

So here are guidelines for remixing the team atmosphere to find the right blend for performance. Well talk about team tyranny and mob behavior first and save the discussion of competition and collaboration for the next chapter.

One of the worst and most expensive decisions organizations make is to establish a team system, when all they are really after is an atmosphere of greater collaboration.

Collaboration is a misunderstood commodity. There are managers out there who still associate it mentally with Nazi collaborators—people who cooperated with the bad guys in World War II. So they are against it. Other folks blanch at the mention of collaboration because it sounds tutti-frutti and unmasculine. What do you mean, share?


chapter 15 Competitive Hazards


Several years ago, Harvey was working in a small division of a much larger company that had morale problems and couldnt quite figure out what was going wrong. After poking around, he discovered that the general manager of the division gained sadistic pleasure from watching his teams compete and scramble with each other for limited resources and few rewards.

While interviewing team resource folks, Harvey also discovered that resources werent nearly as scarce as had been broadcast by the GM. This gentleman simply thought putting the squeeze on would heighten the level of team competition. He was right. The resulting friction between teams eventually raised the temperature within teams to the point of team meltdown. The resulting toll on division morale was evident to everyone—except you-know-who.

What we say about this may violate your deeply held principles, but hear us out:

There is no such thing as friendly competition.

Competition, the way people usually mean the word, is essentially a win/lose proposition. The competitor who wins gets the gravy today, and the competitor who loses is going to try to get even tomorrow.


chapter 16 Communication Shortfalls


Your company is insisting it wants great teamwork. Everywhere you look, its team this and team that. Employees get the message loud and clear. But thats the only message they get.

Once they team, they feel like they have climbed a tall tree, up to the highest branches, and as far as they can see theres nothing. No mail trucks, no telephone lines, no smoke signals. Theyre literally up in a tree, left to their own devices, blinking.

Even if you create a team with a magic wand, it must be sustained the old-fashioned way, with lots of TLC—Teaching, Learning, and Communication.

Team are about knowledge: how to get it, how to improve it, and how to pass it on. In the old days knowledge was a byproduct of doing business; today it is the primary driver. The distinctions between working and learning have never been fuzzier.

Examine again our list of team dysfunctions: mismatched needs, confused goals, cluttered objectives, unresolved roles, bad decision making, uncertain boundaries, bad policies, stupid procedures, personality conflicts, bad leadership, bleary vision, antiteam culture, insufficient feedback and information, ill-conceived reward systems, lack of team trust, and unwillingness to change. Every one of these dysfunctions represents a failure of learning.137


chapter 17 Rewards and Recognition


The happy team books of the past decade suggested that its such a great thing to be on a team that people will do it for free. Our observations do not bear this out. Work is an investment people make. They demand a return on that investment. If you do not pay them, they will not work. This principle of human resources was established during the late Mesozoic Period, in the case of Og vs. Magog.

No, pay/dont-pay is not the issue. The issues are how and whom you pay. Teams are a new thing, but except for a few departures (paying in stock, profit-sharing, gainsharing), not a lot of quantum thinking has been applied to compensation, rewards, and recognition for teams.

We shall attempt to apply some now.

Consider the following fictional scenario, from the Trans World Stadium in St. Louis.

Quarterback Curt Warner has a bonus in his contract. It says that if he plays 50 quarters through the regular 16-game season, he earns a $2.75 million bonus. Seemed like a good idea when the bonus was drawn up—the team wanted to reward him for staying healthy.148


chapter 18 Trust Hell


On November 2, 1999, one of those increasingly frequent events took place—a man with a pistol walked into a building and began firing.

What made this instance relevant to us is that the seven people the man shot and killed were not randomly selected; they were his work team at Xerox Corp. Within ninety seconds Byron Uesugi, an employee at Xeroxs technical services division in Honolulu, slaughtered everyone he had been meeting with for the previous 36 months.

Every year about 1,500 people are killed in workplace violence, and about 250,000 nonfatal physical attacks occur. Typically they are not random; attacks are typically peer-on-peer or against supervisors. The attackers are the ultimate dark angels, bringing bloodshed to their team instead of team spirit.

What these attacks illustrate to us is just how bleak teams can become when the fundamental element of trust is no longer there. We dont know what the dynamics of Uesugis team were, or what his complaint was. But something had to be drastically wrong, a perceived betrayal deeper and darker than a well, for Uesugi to snatch his teammates lives.


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