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Ebenezer Scrooge tp 2021— from Hierarchy to High-Performing Teams

Have you ever been on a team when you were genuinely confused about how you and your team could succeed?  Was it puzzling how empowerment and accountability could work together in that situation?  

One thing about Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, is that Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit both knew who was boss—who worked for whom. 

Today people are often confused about their roles and relationships to team leaders, other team members, and executive leadership.  Sometimes the team feels empowered; other times the  rules suddenly change and goal line moves.  One day it’s an empowered team, the next day it’s a call to be innovative, and the next day to buckle down and follow the well established procedures..

I don’t know what Christmas in the midst of a pandemic will be like in 2020, but one thing I’m sure of is that we’ll see Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol shown on every electronic device we own.  There will be everything from old fashion TVs to steaming media, and a few traditionalists will pull the book down from the shelf and actually read it.

The story focuses on the power and authority of a notorious miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, whose business and passion to acquire was his greatest and only driving force.  Then there’s Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s one-man accounting department, who knew that his role was to keep the books accurately and to try to stay warm with the tiny amount of coal that Scrooge allowed him for the stove at his desk—it was maximum control with minimum resources. 

They lived in worlds apart.  Scrooge knew nothing of Cratchit’s family—poor crippled Tiny Tim never came up in conversation—and the only thing that Bob knew about the business were the numbers that came across his desk every day. 

This strong separation between business functions and personal lives was normal in Scrooge and Cratchit’s time.  Separation of functions was born in the industrial revolution.  Before the industrial revolution cobblers made shoes—from cutting the leather to sewing the pieces together, and they taught the same process to their children.  It went on for generations.

The Industrial Revolution starting in the mid-1700s, was the beginning  of the assembly line.  In a shoe factory, unlike the cobbler’s shop, someone cut the sole, someone else the tongue, another made the shoe laces, and someone else sewed the shoe together.

Organizational silos started with the assembly line in the industrial revolution—as groups of people worked on small bits of the manufacturing process and had no idea how it all came together.  Parts of shoes would come rolling down the line with workers on each side of the line doing a single step in the production. 

At that point nobody really knew how to make a shoe anymore—they were experts in making parts of a shoe.  Different departments were formed around specific functions that knew nothing about each other.  In these organizational silos the groups bonded together, often against the next group involved in the process.

So in the early 90’s who invented teams and why?  Why were they supposed to replace traditional hierarchy?  

At that time, everyone seemed on board to move from hierarchy to teams and few people understood why.  And some of those early teams were bizarre.  Suddenly “empowered,” these new teams fired their bosses, made up their own rules as well as their own results.  In reaction, many organizations reinstated hierarchy and just called the departments teams.  Yet the imperative to understand how teams could work continued with increasing energy.

Here is why teams emerged from hierarchy, and it’s important to understand. 

In the days of miserly, miserable Ebenezer Scrooge, processes remained static.  What Scrooge needed to do was to keep poor impoverished Bob Cratchit moving the accounting process forward—sending out the invoices, paying the bills, reconciling the numbers.  Nothing had changed in a hundred years.

Here’s what changed that made hierarchy obsolete:

  1. The personal computer arrived on everyone’s desk.  They were clunky, heavy, and slow but when personal computers became suddenly standard fixtures on everyone’s desk in the late 1980’s,the death of hierarchy was beyond a doubt. 
  2. At about the same time, distributed processing in the form of Local Area Networks (LANs), emerged and became common.   With the PC, employees had incredible power at their finger tips.  With the LAN, they could sole problems, share information, and collaborate without a supervisor directing each step.  From that point on, a team-based structure for doing work was inevitable.  It was simply a question of when, how, and how well….not it.
  3. Add to those two dynamics, this one:  The assembly line no longer existed in the sense it did.  Bob Cratchit, sitting at a desk under Scrooge’s watchful eye, did the same thing every day all his life.   The numbers changed but the process stayed the same.  With pen in hand, he transcribed the numbers from one document to another and finally  to the ledger with the watchful under the scrutiny of Scrooge so that he didn’t make any mistakes.  Suddenly this assembly line way of working was totally disrupted by the speed and automatic processing of the computer.  Both Ebenezer and Bob were gone, giving way to the “knowledge worker,” the person who now ran a sophisticated and complicated system.
  4. Technology creates workers who invent the process every day as well as do it.  New technology emerges every day to change what we did yesterday with new patterns and procedures.  Individual contributors now do not just follow the next step in the process—they invent the process, refine it, and redefine it every day.  A manager who actually directs the process, instructing workers on what to do next, is impossible.

Organizations Have Left Hierarchy, but Still Struggle to Become Teams

Organizations have left hierarchy to work through teams—but they not become teams in a true sense.  We have left hierarchy, but are still not operating like professional sports or military teams. 

Professional sports teams have a clear idea of how their game is played.   Team members are recruited for their incredible ability to play a position on the team.  They know their success is in whether the team wins or loses.  They know the rules of the game and how the team scores.  They are constantly aware of the play they are running, where the other players are on the field, and how they can support them to score and win. 

Sports teams practice more than they play.  They are coached by highly trained coaches who work with individual players and the team.  Military teams begin with a clear mission.  They practice incessantly.  They build their personal skills and their ability to work together with absolute precision.

How Organizations Can Develop High Performance Teams

  1. Senior leaders must create a laser-focused vision.  Teams execute brilliant plays, call audibles and seize opportunities on the field.  Senior leaders define the vision and align the entire organization behind that singular vision and the business results that define it.  Great teams have great clarity and work under great coaches.
  2. Individual team members need specific, substantive feedback from many different perspectives.  Top players on a sports team receive constant feedback and work with top coaches.  Organizations can achieve that through a substantive, detailed 360-degree assessment, that is professionally debriefed and used to build an action plan that the team member executes against and is held accountable to.
  3. Teams must thrive on effective practice and coaching sessions.  Similarly, sports teams review game tapes, practice running plays, and study their opponents relentlessly.  In industry, it is jaw-dropping to see the amount of money companies spend on recruiting and interviewing new employees, and after they are hired they are largely left to figure out how to be effective. 

    Unfortunately, most teambuilding sessions are useless fluff and a waste of time and team practice and coaching is largely ignored by most companies.  Investment in equipping team members by organizations is minimal.  Organizations confuse practice and training for all hands meetings once a month. 

    The few companies who know how to train teams capture the market and increase their success.  One of the most effective ways to change this dynamic is a tool like Delta’s Team 360, which allows the team to assess its own performance and gets detailed feedback from rest of the organization on the team’s effectiveness.  That data leads to a team “Game Plan” to take their performance to the next level.
  4. Teams must understand how the whole organization is performing.  Organizations clearly still have a lot of the assembly line mentality when each employee sat on a production line and handled a tiny piece of creating the product.  A team today must understand how the organization is doing, what its standing is in the league, and what they as a player contribute to a winning season.  We must communicate clearly a winning strategy and how the team wins.

How do you really know if your organization is doing well—moving forward as fast and effectively as possible?  That’s the number one question we face now.  The shock of the pandemic in the first quarter of 2020 gave us a 9-month reprieve, but now leadership and investors agree that we’re in a mode where circumstances are taking a back seat to success.  After months with strictures no one could have expected, many organizations surprisingly are actually performing better than before.

Yet organizations, now mostly physically separated and working together on Zoom, struggle with the vision and the message.  Building real teams is the greatest challenge that organizations have.  At the same time, team alignment and high performance is our greatest opportunity. 

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