Why Several Heads Are Better Than One


By Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith

Harvard Business School - 291pp - $24.95

"If you want something done right, do it yourself." You've heard that cliche all your life. Maybe you believe it--even though the company just sent you to one of those team-building retreats where you and your colleagues were forced to depend on each other to climb ropes or balance on a beam.

Well, think again. The days of the rugged individualist are over. Like raspberry tea, shared sacrifice, and worrying about paying your nanny's Social Security, teams are in. Whether you're an MBA candidate, a blue-collar worker, or a corporate manager, chances are you'll soon find yourself expected to collaborate. General Electric Co. has made self-managing work teams a centerpiece of its organizational approach, to the point of running some plants without supervisors. Motorola Inc. relied heavily on teams to beat Japanese rivals in hand-held cellular phones. And at 3M Co., they are crucial to meeting the goal of garnering half of annual revenues from products created in the past five years.

Why all the hoopla? Leading business thinkers and top executives believe that teams, by melding the skills, experiences, and insights of several people, can outperform any individual. Interest in the concept has been fueled by two other management trends: the quality movement, in which teams play a key role, and "reengineering," which calls for setting up interdisciplinary teams to tackle specific tasks rather than organizing around traditional functions such as marketing and finance. At American Telephone & Telegraph Co., for example, one team, with members drawn from marketing, finance, and engineering, exists to dream up product ideas for small businesses across all product lines.

For all the shouting, though, teams can be wasteful and time-consuming. So can the many books on the subject--generally clip jobs supplemented with simple-minded formulas for success. Not so The Wisdom of Teams, an engaging primer by a pair of McKinsey & Co. consultants, Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith. This is a thoughtful and well-written book filled with sometimes fascinating examples.

To explore how to form teams, lead them, and get them to work, Katzenbach and Smith interviewed hundreds of team members in dozens of organizations, including Citibank, Weyerhauser, Eli Lilly, Hewlett-Packard, the Girl Scouts--even secretive McKinsey itself. They recount how a seven-person cohort at Burlington Northern created a billion-dollar business for the railroad company and how a Motorola group improved quality and squeezed out costs in the company's connector business.

The authors also analyze failures. They describe one "stuck" group at a semiconductor company in which none of the nine members was able to assume leadership. The team, charged with developing a customized microchip, lacked urgency and enthusiasm. Asked how it was approaching its goal, one memeber replies: "We'll drive off any bridge we get to." The authors conclude that members didn't share a common purpose or approach, their individual commitment was weak, and they lacked decision-making skills.

That team, say the authors, was really just a "group." In such groups, individual achievement remains paramount. In teams, as defined here, members are deeply committed to and responsible for one another's personal growth and success. Only the performance of the group is evaluated. Extensive group discussion, debate, and decision-making make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

As you might expect, Katzenbach and Smith identify several elements common to successful teams. Their conclusions:

-- Keep them small, ideally fewer than 10 members. Agreement and purpose are tougher to gain in larger groups.

-- Mix people who have complementary skills. Not only do most teams need members with different technical or functional expertise, they also require people who are good at problem-solving and people who are good at decision-making--two distinct talents.

-- Commit the team to a common purpose. Many fail because they casually accept goals that are not demanding, precise, or realistic.

-- To maintain focus, set specific performance targets, such as getting a product to market in half the usual time.

Some of this advice may seem like common sense. And the authors try so hard to nail down certain points--such as the importance of setting goals--that some of their discussion becomes redundant. The book has one other annoying weakness: Presumably to avoid offending anyone, the authors omit company names when describing failures.

Even so, you'll be hardpressed to find a better guide to forming what many consider an essential building block of the "organization of the future." And if going it alone has always been your thing, keep an open mind. As teams are charged with major corporate tasks, being part of one will expand, not diminish, your influence and responsibility.

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