The Team Trap

  • June 9th, 2014
  • Dick Cross

Teams aren't always the best way to get things done

I horrified an audience recently when I called teamwork the greatest drain on contemporary business productivity. And it’s likely that I’ve just had the same effect on you.

It’s not that the idea of a team is fundamentally bad. It’s wonderful—in situations where more than one mind or body is required to create an outcome. The troubles come when we use teams in situations where they’re not necessary.

Teamwork has become a universal default for dealing with far too many things. Often, it just slows down our processes, reduces decisions to least-common-denominator solutions, raises risk aversion, and undermines responsibility and accountability.

In some businesses the trend has grown to epidemic proportions, with individuals expecting, and feeling slighted, if they’re not included in proceedings that fall far from their own range of responsibilities and beyond their abilities to contribute. The consequence is that no one takes responsibility—which isn’t a euphemism for punishment, but rather a focus on high-impact learning—when things go wrong.

How often have you asked, “What went wrong?” or “Is this the best we can do?” to receive an answer that started with, “Well, when the team…”

The point here isn’t to ascribe blame but rather to accelerate the momentum of your business. Personal responsibility encourages employees to become stronger by learning from their successes and their failures—as individuals.

Shelves in the business sections of book vendors and listings online are replete with advice on team building. A consistent takeaway from this considerable literature is the observation that teams are only as strong as the strengths of their members. Without discounting the truth that solid teams improve the contributions of their individual members, weak members hold teams back. Teams of strong members become productivity multipliers, given situations that warrant teamwork.

So, getting the best out of teams and avoiding the negatives starts with every individual accepting the responsibility that she needs to be better.

Great and strong businesses and great and strong teams are collections of great and strong individuals. They’re like an army. They are made up of individuals who have, first, stood on their own and have been tested. But these are also people who have the capacity to come together and shoulder the weight of reaching a complicated goal as a team. And they do this without abdicating their responsibility as individuals to contribute to the success of the whole.

And that’s where you come in, from your position in the Job and the Top. Here are a few suggestions to ensure that your teams are used efficiently and effectively:

  • Only mobilize a team when an objective warrants multiple perspectives
  • Only staff a team with members whose experience will add meaningfully to a higher outcome
  • Set unambiguous objectives and clear end points
  • Evaluate the contributions of members along the way, with debriefing at the end
  • Finally, leave no other initiatives to individuals according to the scopes of their organizational responsibilities

And a final note: our own position is not a team job. People say, “It’s lonely at the top,” for a reason. Your job is to think and act at a level different from everyone else. You may seek counsel, but you can never abdicate your responsibility for the health and integrity of your whole business.

Demonstrate this, and expect it from others, and you’ll begin to discern the right times and the right balance in your business for individual and team contributions.

About the Author

  • Dick Cross
  • Dick Cross

Dick Cross is the founder and Managing Principal of The Cross Partnership III, a twenty-year-old, Boston-based, “hands-on” consulting and turn-around firm focused on improving the operating and financial performance of businesses owned by financial sponsors. Over the past decade, Dick has served as an interim President/CEO, leading successful business transitions in eight companies over the past twelve years.

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