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The Magic and Mystery of Teams > NetSparsh - Viral Content you Love & Share

The Magic and Mystery of Teams

As the world of manufacturing has become increasingly competitive, managers have diligently searched out new and innovative ways to increase productivity, multiply the power of every employee, and better utilize every resource in order to positively impact the bottom line.

For more than a decade one of the most popular "Hot Trend" innovations has been the idea of "Team". We are told that no man is an island, nothing of significance has ever been accomplished by one person alone, the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts and on and on and on.

One the other hand I recently read about a Canadian government survey that concluded there is no evidence to support the idea that team environments are more productive than non team environments. Some unknown genius said, "If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in the dark with a mosquito."

Bacon and eggs make a great breakfast team whereas mashed turnips and eggs just don't seem to work. When a CEO brings in an advisor, coach or consultant to discuss available options, perhaps the first question to address should be, "Is this a team situation?"

Are there situations where a "Team" approach is not appropriate and if so what is it that separates a "Team" scenario from some other method?

Many years ago my philosophy professor taught me that before you can argue for or against an idea you need to define your axioms.

So what is a "Team"?

Any group of people working together -- right? Wrong!

When is a group not a team?

A basic tenet of "Team" is joint responsibility, joint blame and joint credit. Any situation in which individuals are going to be judged, assessed or rated according to individual achievement is not a team situation. Someone has said, "individuals score points, teams win games."

Salespeople in a car dealership rarely pass on leads to each other or step in to help each other close a deal. In fact they are more likely to steal each other's potential clients. Even when they become friends and a senior salesperson mentors a junior, offering advice on assessing customers, prospecting, closing deals, etc., this is not a team. Many organizations refer to their sales staff as a team, but each salesperson is solely responsible for results in a given area, territory, geographic location or product line. No matter how determined we are to have all sales people deliver the same message, in the same way, if they do not need interaction, co-operation, and support from one another, and if they are not going to be judged primarily by overall results of the group, they are not a team.

Another basic tenet of team is decision making method. In many groups we seek majority agreement, seven for -- five against -- the "for" is carried. Not so with a team. Here we must seek consensus. We must arrive at a decision that everyone can support. We must keep asking what can be modified to get support from those who disagree. (If we delete this, modify that, add something else, would you then be able to go along?) We must have unanimity. The joint responsibility, blame, credit demands it.

If you still like to call your sales staff, "The Sales Team" because you like the sound of it, you believe your customers like the sound of it, or even because the salespeople like the sound of it, go ahead, we don't need to play with semantics. But don't delude yourself into thinking that the attitudes that make your favourite hockey team a champion will work here! Instead seek to develop the attitudes to practice, conditioning and a positive mental attitude that make individual players great.

Similarly a "Management Team" is rarely that, at least not in all aspects of each executive's function. By all means, when managers come together to analyze performance, determine employment standards or create a strategic plan for growth they will likely be operating as a team. A CEO has authority to impose, assign, delegate and hold other managers accountable. When he or she brings subordinates together for a pep talk, sites the shortcomings of individual departments, lays out new policy, directives or goals, this is no team environment. A team has a leader, other groups have a boss! And yes, we still need bosses!

From this I think we can conclude that, when an enterprise demands individual effort and that individual alone must be responsible for results, the idea of "Team" is inappropriate. We must also be aware that in any endeavour where we are putting all of our eggs in an "individual" basket, the selection, training, coaching and mentoring of that individual is crucial to the success of that endeavour.

We may also conclude that when an enterprise is so critical as to demand very tight control, a high degree of expertise or quick, on the spot decision making and action, even if many people are involved we have a committee or a task force, not a team. (Some teams can be called a "Task Force" but more on that later.)

Why is it important to differentiate?

The idea of team is most important to corporate culture. A culture that embraces the idea that everyone is working together co-dependantly toward the accomplishment of a noble objective is masterfully put forward in the little book, "Gung Ho!" By Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles. The idea of everyone accepting individual and joint responsibility for the overall corporate effort and result, sharing the dream and the rewards is seen as the key to achieving corporate goals.

The Team

In examining organizations where teams have proven to be successful we see some obvious differences from non team environments. The word "Team" seems to be constantly on the tip of every tongue. We hear references to "the management team", "the sales team", "the safety team", the productivity team". We here that "George, Sally and Roberta teamed up to...", "the Tom and Bob team produces..." and so on. There is an apparently constant awareness of and focus on the "Idea of team." We, them, and us are heard much more often than I, she, you and him.

There are some basics that determine the success of any team effort. Number of members, purpose, goals, required and available skills, approach or methodology, accountability and results measurement. In almost every instance where a team fails to meet its objectives a deficiency in one or more of these is the prime cause.

A dozen members is generally believed to be the maximum for effectiveness. More than this becomes cumbersome and unwieldy with too little opportunity for individual contribution.

Everyone must understand what is the object of the exercise, what the group is expected to accomplish that can't be done by individual effort. Each person should also know why he or she is a part of the team.

Goals must be clearly defined both for the team and for the contribution of each individual member and everyone must buy in. The group must share a vision of the team as a powerful force.


I worked for many years as a sales representative in a true team setting. The company (management) thought they had a sales team consisting of nine inside salesmen, nine outside salesmen, in inside supervisor and a sales manager. This of course was not a team at all, there was no common goal or objective (accept to sell more), no co-operation between territories, and no joint accountability.

What this company did not understand was that each inside / outside pair was a definite team of two. The outside person was the team leader and the inside supervisor and sales manager were coaches and mentors. Each team was jointly and collectively responsible to set its sales objectives within their clearly defined geographic territory and to create a strategy to achieve them, and they were jointly accountable for results. The process created natural teams that in most cases were powerful, dynamic, competitive and successful, especially when we acquired a sales manager who became a true coach and mentor.


In any team, skills must be honed in goal setting, communication, listening, relationship building, presentation, information gathering, analysis, personal management, time management, delegation, conflict resolution, problem solving, project management and team building. Whew!

The approach to the task must be logical, simple and thorough to make sure that all aspects are understood, all necessary actions taken and all unnecessary actions eliminated.

The group must understand the criteria by which they will be measured and except the dynamics of group accountability. No one person must be allowed to except the blame for error or failure. No one person can be allowed to grab the glory. The team is accountable for all and to all.

Much research indicates that focus on becoming a team rarely works. The focus must be on accomplishing the objective, and working together utilizing the diverse experience and skills of other people, is merely a logical way of multiplying the effectiveness of each person. With focus on the goal, the team comes into being as a natural by-product. It has even been suggested that a team should not be told it is a team.


John C. Maxwell's book, "The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork" stresses the importance of recognizing that nothing worthwhile has ever been accomplished by one person alone. Every baseball pitcher has a pitching coach, every batter a hitting coach. Every great golfer works with a coach or teacher. Every inventor is the product of educators and the research of others. Every politician, every business person, every military commander, every pastor becomes effective only with a great deal of input and help from others. Everyone must understand how much more power is unleashed when each person becomes a dedicated part of a group effort.

The team is not a substitute for hierarchy within an organization and is in fact an extension of it, a great way to integrate otherwise competitive units or functions. Teams achieve a balance between short term performance objectives and long term organizational building goals by turning long term goals into definable performance criteria and development of the skills necessary to accomplish them.


Most people have been trained to think and act as individuals. They are most often evaluated on individual performance, individual effort and individual accomplishment. Learning to contribute to a joint effort, to become subservient to the needs of the group, to accept a share of failure that may be due to another's shortcomings and to willingly share the glory of accomplishment with others whose contribution in a specific instance may be questionable, is a new, unsettling and often frightening experience.

The process of building a team begins with helping the members to create a vision of what they want to accomplish, to believe in the inevitability of the results and to dedicate themselves to accomplishment of the goals. After the death of Walt Disney, his widow was asked to participate in the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida, the product of a huge team effort. When the person introducing her said, "I wish Walt could have seen this", she replied, "He did". The power of vision is awesome.

A fundamental requirement for success in a team environment is trust, by each member, in each member and in the group. Its development requires time and a sincere effort. Trust is one of those things that must be given before it can be gotten. In "The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey talks of making deposits now so you can make withdrawals later. When a person considers that his or her career is at stake in granting trust, it is not granted readily but people can learn to do so. Time and positive results will provide reinforcement.


There are three distinct types of teams. Teams that make or do things, teams that run things and teams that recommend things. (The Wisdom of Teams ? Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith) In the first two it is relatively easy to define roles, observe skills and recognize contribution.

In the case of the team that recommends things, a task force, roles are often blurred, skills are fuzzy and contribution is not always obvious. One member may not be aware that her great idea grew out of a comment by another member several weeks ago or that her own input has had a profound impact on the thinking of someone else. Recommendation is after all the end result of thinking through options.

Initially, task force members may try to upstage each other, a natural reaction in the often territorial workplace. Direction and guidance is required to prevent resentment and self defence from becoming the norm. Katzenbach and Smith have concluded that the success of teams is the result of "the disciplined pursuit of performance". The emphasis is on discipline.


In every type of team the role of the team coach is crucial. Rarely will a group come together and begin to function as a team without this close up guidance. The coach helps members to develop the required skills through subtle suggestion, open ended questions, pointing out options, not necessarily in regard to the task being performed but in approach to the task and in analysis of potential results. The coach is also a builder of confidence, a reminder of goals, an enhancer of vision, a sounding board for ideas, an attitude adjuster when required, a mentor individually and collectively and a champion for the team in relations with management and other outsiders.


Rome wasn't built in a day and teams do not happen overnight. Even when teams work together for a full eight hours every day it often takes weeks or even months before they begin to function effectively. In the case of a task force that meets weekly or monthly it is of great importance to provide guidance and direction. If for example, a person's bruised ego or hurt feelings are allowed to fester for a week or a month between meetings, that person's contribution and value to the group is likely ended. The coach must pick up on such things and address them one on one outside of the group or arrange a meeting of two members who are at odds with each other to resolve an issue.


The team must have a leader, usually selected by the team, to guide the process on which they are engaged. The leader is neither a supervisor nor a boss but someone to insure that each member has an appropriate role and has the skills and tools required to perform it. The leader helps the team to arrive at consensus, maintains direction and focus and presides over meetings. The leader does not make unilateral decisions but does participate the same as any other member, does his or her fair share of the work, encourages everyone to participate and arbitrates disputes. The team leader is also responsible for the mix on the team, to insure that all necessary skills and experience are available. Since the coach is not with the team full time the team leader must assume some of the coach's role on a day to day basis. The team leader must juggle control and guidance, keeping the team on track without being in charge. In short the leader must accept the responsibility to do whatever it takes to make the team successful.

Especially in task force teams (teams that recommend things) the role of team leader may change with each project under study or consideration. When there is a team member with a high degree of experience or knowledge in a particular area, that person may assume the team leader role for that project.

In teams that make things or do things the team leader is more likely to remain constant and may often be appointed by management. This sometimes becomes a huge role change for a former supervisor who may need a good deal of coaching to make the transition.


Teams that run things particularly at a very senior level often have an appointed leader. This can be a very difficult situation to manage. Strong leaders who have devoted a lifetime in the pursuit and acquisition of power are often reluctant to give up even the appearance of being in charge.

Management must be willing to stay out of the way, to allow the team to function, to back up its decisions and to insure that all necessary resources are made available, including co-operation from managers, other departments, and where appropriate, access to information, suppliers and often customers. This does not mean that the team (or team members) is allowed to ignore hierarchy or behave insubordinately. All requests and submissions must go through appropriate channels.

For many managers, this can be a tough pill. I remember when working as a career counselor, the consternation of a client returning from a job interview. He had gone to great lengths to point out to the CEO interviewing him that he was a highly skilled, 'hands on' manager. The CEO had asked, "Yes, but do you think you can learn to be a 'hands off' manager?" As sales people know, often you have to give up control to maintain control.

I worked for a short period of time as a sales rep for a company that knew nothing of teams. We got a new branch manager for whom I had a great deal of respect as an able competitor when I had worked for another company. He assembled the sales force, told us he was proud of the team, and then spent more than two hours instructing us on how to make sales calls and represent the company. There was no input sought and no questions asked until he finished with, "Any questions or comments?" At the time I was the star of the sales force so after several moments of silence I finally responded, "Well Bruce, I've always believed that if you have five people in a room and only one opinion, you have four more people than you need." A week later I handed him my resignation and accepted what was probably the best job I ever had.

Unless managers can learn to be visionaries and mentors, the teams they create will inevitably fail. The old maxim, "Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve" certainly applies to team, and simultaneously, if management does not see and believe, the team doesn't have a chance. If coaching resources are not available internally, or if time and workload constraints do not allow their utilization, then outside help must be found. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson once said, "We should not only use all the brains we have, but all that we can borrow." Team-building consultants are not a dime a dozen but they are available.

Perhaps the first question to a consultant should be, "Is this a team scenario?"

Len McNally is President and founder (in 1996) of The Leadership Centre, dedicated to leadership development, management team building and change management through executive and corporate coaching - from the top floor to the shop floor. With more than thirty years experience in sales, marketing and business development Len has for many years been an avid student of psychology, behavior and motivation. He still reads three to four books a month and has writen several book reviews for He can be reached at (519) 759-1127 or email: Other articles may be seen at:

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