Alignment Performance Results

Why Our Teams All Too Often Fail

Posted on 04/30/2018 in Culture/Team Alignment, Featured Articles by Jack Speer

Basketball is a player-to-player competition, but in business, as well as non-profits, team members must not compete against each other.

J. Richard Hackman, a leading expert on teams at Harvard University, was recently quoted as saying, “I have no question that a team can generate magic. But don’t count on it.” How well do your teams function—do they generate magic?”

On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do teams you lead work?  The others you are a member of?

Answering for myself, I have never given a score of 10 to any team I’ve led or been a part of, and I’ve led some amazing teams.  Teams are complex and I’ve burst up to an 8 on the scale from time to time.

How do you form that amazing team and avoid disastrous ones?  Here is a check list of questions that I believe is worth keeping.

  1. Has Senior Management Given a Mandate for the Team and its Mission? Don’t even start a team if it’s not backed at the highest level.  Most teams will fail without a clear link to the chain of command.  We have seen teams generated under a shaky mandate (and sometimes self-generated) without a clear mandate or resources.These weak mandated teams can operate for months or years, soak up time and resources, and ultimately have the legs cut out from under them, with huge waste of resources, leading to a sense of demoralization and futility.  For every “skunk works” in the back room that leads to a brilliant new product, there are hundreds of teams working long hours that generate endless meetings, huge email strings, useless presentations—and that lead nowhere.
  2. Does the Team Have a Common Understanding of Its Mission? Do members know what they’re doing, or are there still endless discussions about ever changing directions?  Everyone around the conference table must be able to articulate what is the end result of the team and what are the metrics to know how close they are to achieving it. They must be able to articulate the goal in speech and writing, and be commit to it.Research shows, and our experience confirms, that often the very members on the team don’t agree on its mission.  People become members of teams carrying very different agendas that doom the project outcome from the beginning.   Like people on a subway, they may have little in common, but if they know where the train is headed and the stops along the way, they can get there at the same time.
  3. Does everyone on the team REALLY need to be at the table? The smaller, more compact the team is, the greater chance of success it will have.   Large teams are lumbering, clumsy, and political.  You can begin with a larger group for input, and then pair down the committee to a working, capable few.Generally speaking, the core team must have a broad understanding of the mission/project, and understand not just how their own expertise contributes to that mission/project, but how each of the other team members contributes to it. In order to be on the team, you must understand how it fits into the business plan of the organization and make decisions based on the interconnections of all the team members.You must have the ability to eliminate members of the team.  It’s important to take action sooner rather than later in the case of toxic team members or non-contributors.  Sometimes we keep resource people on the team who are valuable in explaining technology or process, but we often waste these people’s time by requiring them to attend team meetings and participate in facets of the project that don’t pertain to them.  Call them only when you need them.
  4. Do We have the Right Team Leader? Leading a team is a challenging task, even for the best leaders.  Team leaders must find multiple ways to keep the team members motivated, empower (not micro manage) them, motivate and inspire. They must lead through failure and success, re-recruit members in terms of maintaining their commitment, and navigate waters where the dangers are always significant and many options are not that great.  Backing them up and giving their encouragement is key.
  5. Have We Done the Work of Aligning the Team? If there is a single, most serious error made by organizations, it is the failure to coach and align organizational teams.  Headhunters seek out rock stars of business, with the best education, skillset, and experience.  Then we put them in an organizational role, assume they can relate as a team, and are shocked when a talented and highly compensated team fails.It’s as if we were a sports franchise, signed the best players with multi-million-dollar, multiyear contracts and then put them on the field without a coach or gameplan.  You give them a ball and point to the goal line and tell them that smart people know how to score.Basic alignment includes assessments such as the MBTI, FIRO-B, and Delta 360-degree assessment followed by alignment sessions and coaching.  A group of talented executives under this model can become a team that creates magic outcomes and takes an organization to its goals.
  6. Does the Team have a Laser Beam Focused on Getting the Right Outcome? So much of what is written about teams is of little use, because its primary focus is on team relationships, process, and workplace environment.  Granted, these are the topics that most often show up on Glass Door and win awards for Best Workplace.  Granted, these factors are extremely important to a successful workplace.But without a clear goal, these factors mean little at the end of the day. Passion with a laser beam team focus on accomplishing the outcome are the factors that will determine whether an organization will survive or fail.
  7. Does this work really need to be done by a team?  Teams should be constituted if the project requires different expertise that cut across organizational lines and require ongoing management by a group of people.  If the project that needs to get done can be done by individual contributors, coordinated by technology or a project manager, by all means, avoid forming a team.  There is no law that says that work must be done by a team.   Many jobs that fall into a predictable cycle with an establish SOP can and should be done by individual contributors.  Teamwork most often requires frequent to constant interaction, reaction to changing scenarios, and frequent handoffs.  If this is not the case, most probably the best form of organization is not a team.

These are my checklist to forming a high performing team.  What about you?  What would you add?  I would love to hear your list, thoughts our ideas.  Email me at

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