Teams: A force of Nature

Posted on 29. Apr, 2010 by in Uncategorized

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
George Bernard Shaw

Teams, I’ve become fond of saying, are a force of Nature. They allow us to be used for a purpose recognized by ourselves as a mighty one. They get results. More often than not, they are FAR better at getting things done than are individuals, even than collections of individuals who exhibit good teamwork!  If you have been on a real team, you will never forget it. You will always long to be on one again. Real teams simply ‘destroy’ business problems, thereby creating awe in management; they are favored by their leaders, thereby creating envy in other ‘teams.’

Can’t all teams be such forces of Nature, you ask?  Well, yes and no, depending on the business problem on the one hand, and your willingness to let go, on the other.

For many years, I have been a student of Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith’s heavily research-based book, The Wisdom of Teams.  One of the book’s central findings is that teams form only because they have to, more or less. That is, when the performance challenge being faced cannot be solved by individuals–even those exhibiting good ‘teamwork’–a team is the solution.

Wisdom’s specific definition is “a small number of people with complementary skills, committed to a common purpose, with a set of performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” The common purpose and performance goals are critical: they must be substantive and meaningful, both in business and in personal terms to team members. Likewise, the team holds themselves mutually accountable: when team members say (or think) “well, I did what I was supposed to do, but . . .” then you know its not a team. On a team, it can only be that ‘we didn’t get it done.’ Wisdom’s term for this kind of team is a performing team.

I call it a team entity. I use the word ‘entity’ deliberately. Teams are living systems, with their own personality, culture, and self-regulating mechanisms. This entity can be evoked and nurtured and grown. Most importantly for a team, it can simply be revealed, which tends to grow and nurture it. Revealing is most easily done by outsiders like leaders and coaches.

The accountability and the entity observation come together in another: on a real team–a team entity–it is as if the primary identification of the members shift from them as individuals to the team as a whole. When we work on a real team, we do whatever we must do to fulfill the team’s mission; I as an individual come second. Ironically, its not like losing yourself, instead its more like finding yourself, finding your home, belonging.

It’s like finding the true joy in life: becoming a force of Nature.

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