Performance Rather than Togetherness

Interview With Jon Katzenbach, co-author of "The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization"
By Vern Burkhardt
In The Wisdom of Teams, Jon Katzenbach and co-author Douglas Smith define a team as "a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable." They also say, "No major company we know is pursuing an energized, productive work force without the conscious use of teams."

Teams usually outperform individuals acting alone or in larger organizational groupings, especially when performance requires multiple skills, judgments and experiences. For that reason, teams will be the primary building blocks of successful company performance in organizations of the future.

Groups don't become teams just because we tell them to do so.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What is the wisdom of teams?

Jon KatzenbachJon Katzenbach: That's a really good question. The Wisdom of Teams is the title of the book!

In a nutshell, the wisdom of teams is they focus on performance rather than togetherness. If you want a bit more specificity, they focus on what I call the team basics, and they get the team basics right.

They don't team when they don't have a team task. When they do have a team task, they are disciplined about getting performance results. So I guess the wisdom is they are relentlessly focused on performance outcome, not on togetherness and bonding.

VB: You say that a team is the most flexible and powerful unit of performance, learning, and change in any organization. Since you initially published your book in 1992, has the importance of teams in helping businesses meet the challenges of innovation, speed and agility, quality, and customer satisfaction changed in any way?

Jon Katzenbach: It has changed in two fairly critical ways. The first critical difference is that virtual teaming has become the name of the game.

When we wrote the book we were looking at teaming where folks were in the same locale. The team got together&mash;had a room together, did their work together. What has happened in the interim, with the explosion of Internet technology and the globalization that companies are addressing, teaming virtually has become prevalent—people are not in the same room together. In many cases they are trying to establish and be a team when the people don't know each other and may never have even seen each other. I think that is a critical difference.

The good news is that that the basics of what is required for team performance are the same. By the way, you'll notice that I probably used the term team performance to death. The reason is exactly what I talked about earlier. It's what real teams are all about. You've got to get a performance result no matter what. The New York Jets are going to beat the Tennessee team no matter what.

And that's true in the business setting. When I am talking about teaming, I'm using that term more generally. A lot of organizations try to do teaming. They think teaming is good. Teaming to them means working together more effectively. That's not what a real team does at all. That's not the game for them. They don't worry about togetherness and bonding. They worry simply about the fact they've got a hard performance objective and they can't get it done if they don't work together.

VB: You said there were two changes. The first was virtual teaming—what was the other one?

Jon Katzenbach: The second one relates to informal networks, particularly at the senior leadership level.

The more I look at how senior leadership groups work together, the more convinced I am that they get as much work done through their informal networks as they do in team configurations. What that says is, if you're thinking about a team's performances, you also want to think about how that team is going to make use of informal networks to accomplish its objectives.

cover of The Wisdom of TeamsLet me give you a really good example. In the second chapter of the Wisdom of Teams, we wrote about the Burlington Northern Railroad's Intermodal Team. That story was focused on seven people who functioned as a high-performance team and we concentrated on what they did. We paid lip service to their networks but, in retrospect, what they did with their networks was the critical factor.

The seven guys in this team were trying to get the railroad to go into piggybacking of truck trailers. In order to get the job done they had to network with 50 to 60 people in various parts of the company. That informal networking was at least as important as what they did together as a high-performance team.

I don't think we emphasized that point as much as I would today.

VB: Is informal networking a conscious thing or do individuals do such networking as part of their contribution to the performance of the team?

Jon Katzenbach: It is both. But if within an organization you want to take advantage of this insight, you want to do it consciously. Your high-performance team will do it unconsciously.

Unfortunately there are very few high-performance teams. The most you can hope for is getting a real team. A high-performance team is quite rare but they will always network. They do it instinctively.

(Vern's note: High-performance teams deliver performance well in excess of similar teams and far greater than reasonable expectations would dictate. They accomplish "rare and truly remarkable achievements.")

If we're in the role of trying to get better performance out of other teams, we want to be consciously thinking about how they use their networks. This is particularly true for innovation.

What makes innovation work? It's the person with the bright idea. But the way that person makes it happen in an organization is, he or she networks. Innovation teams that network are going to be much more effective—they're going to get the job done better and faster.

VB: You say significant performance challenges do more than anything else to foster teams and that high-performance teams are rare. If you were the leader of a major corporation, non-profit or public sector organization, how would you foster the development of extraordinary teams?

Jon Katzenbach: First of all I don't think I would try for extraordinary teams. I would try to get real teams in the right places working on the right team tasks. If I did that I think I would get a few extraordinary teams.

In my lifetime I have seen only half a dozen extraordinary teams. They are not as common as many would like to think they are. Extraordinary teams are a rarity because of the amount of work and emotional commitment of the team members. They usually burn out in a few months. It is an entity that you can't sustain. Extraordinary teams are not only rare but they will emerge without anyone trying to make them come about.

If you concentrate on getting a working group to function as a real team—and that means simply apply the basics and deal gently with discipline—you will get real team performance. Every now and then one those real teams will pop into the extraordinary mode. You don't want to create extraordinary teams as much as you want to take advantage of them when they happen. Real teams are much more common.

(Vern's note: We learn there are six basic elements of team discipline—they are generally composed of less than twelve members, members have complementary skills required for success, there is a common purpose, there are a common set of specific performance goals, members have a commonly agreed upon approach to working together, and members hold one another accountable.)

VB: You say teams are more about discipline than togetherness and that conflict, like trust and interdependence, is a necessary part of becoming a real team. Is there anything more to be said about that topic?

Jon Katzenbach: Yes, discipline comes in two ways. First of all, make the choice consciously, be disciplined about deciding when you should be a real team and when not. Don't just assume that it is always better to be a real team, because it isn't. If you don't have a team task it is a waste of time. So discipline number one is recognizing when you have a team task and when you don't.

Discipline number two is applying the fundamentals of whatever teaming approach fits the task. Sometimes a single leader unit is much better than a real team. But they both require discipline. You want to apply the right discipline so you're going to do it differently.

It is in those two ways that discipline becomes important. That's why, for example, you see the best teaming in organizations like the Marine Corps and the Navy Seals. They don't have a team unless they have a team task. When they have a team task they make sure they get either the single-leader unit discipline or the real team discipline.

(Vern's note: In a single-leader unit the unit's performance depends heavily on a single leader—applying the classic managerial approach where the leader is in control, makes key decisions, delegates and monitors individual assignments and accountabilities, and decides when and how to modify the group's working approaches.)

VB: You say focusing on performance rather than on chemistry, togetherness, good communication or good feeling shapes teams more than anything else. Can high-performance teams be successful if members are not having fun and loyal to each other?

Jon Katzenbach: Yes, they can. It isn't about fun and loyalty. Fun is not a part of it. Feeling good about what you have to do is a part of it. Being emotionally committed is a part of it.

Fun sometimes happens but that's not a test. There are a lot of real team efforts that aren't necessarily fun, but they are stimulating and are positive experiences.

VB: And they have to be done.

Jon Katzenbach: Yes, they have to be done. A team motivates its people to do what has to be done. The team makes them feel good emotionally about what they have to do. But a lot of what they have to do is not fun.

VB: Given the important role of teams in meeting the significant and demanding performance challenges organizations often face, what attributes would you look for when hiring new employees in addition to them having unbridled enthusiasm?

Jon Katzenbach: There's a fun term that I ran across in some of my recent research at the United Nations. I did some research with a fellow who was involved with one of the USA presidential campaigns—not this election, but the time before.

He used the term fast zebras and said, "I'm looking for fast zebras." In response to my question, "what is a fast zebra," he said, "a fast zebra is the one that is able to get in and out of the watering hole without getting eaten alive by the crocodiles and the lions that are hiding in the bushes."

I translate that as an organizational sensitivity to work with both the formal and informal elements of the organization to get things done. You really want people who have better than average organizational sensitivity.

It is almost like taking Daniel Goldman's notion of emotional intelligence and social intelligence and saying, "I want people who are good in both of those areas because they're going to be better able to work together." They are also going to be better able to connect to get things done.

VB: You say pseudo-teams are a sad paradox. They may call themselves a team but, "the sum of the whole is less than the potential of the individual parts." Would you explain?

Jon Katzenbach: A pseudo-team is a team that is focused entirely on bonding and togetherness. They are the team that goes off in the woods and falls backwards into each other's arms and the members feel they have received some good experiences in the process. They are all about the bonding and togetherness part of teaming and they overlook that it is all about performance.

What happens is they waste a lot of time and they judge their success by how they feel coming out of meetings and how they respond to one another. That's not what a real team does. They get some bonding and togetherness but it is a byproduct.

What real teams are about is having a challenging performance objective that has to be achieved. They have mutual respect for one another's capability.

By the way, they may not like one another. But they respect one another's capabilities and know they need each other's capabilities to get the job done.

VB: So if a pseudo-team meets its performance objectives, it's more by accident than good organization?

Jon Katzenbach: Yes it is. It is more by accident than by organization.

VB: If you were working in a large organization and your supervisor told you that you were not being a team player, would you take it as a criticism or a compliment?

Jon Katzenbach: I would have to know the context. I might take it either way. If they said I'm not a team player and what they meant was that I didn't follow orders, I would take it as a compliment. If they meant that I didn't work effectively in my small group to get something accomplished, I would take it as a criticism. It would depend entirely on the context.

Often the term team player doesn't refer to what goes on in a real team. It refers to whether you're part of the organization. Whether you follow the rules here. Whether you're a bit of a maverick. I might take that as a compliment.

VB: You're not a team player because you don't fit in.

Jon Katzenbach: Yes, you don't fit in. You're not doing what I tell you to do.

VB: You observe that high-performance teams can't be created on purpose, that leaders and executives need to do whatever it takes to keep valuable teams—sometimes it means just getting out of the way.

Why can't teams be deliberately created by establishing a common purpose, goals and working approach, and individual and mutual accountability for a selected group of people?

Jon Katzenbach: They can. I don't think you can create a high-performance team on purpose—this type of team is the same as an extraordinary team, which was the term you used earlier. But I do think you can create real teams on purpose and they're really good things to have.

The reason you can't create the high-performance team is that it requires such a higher level of emotional commitment, that it is very hard to create that every time you try to form a team. My belief is you're going to get this type of team periodically if you correctly set up and encourage real teams.

If you watch how a high-performance team operates you'll see interesting things happening. The energy level is incredible. Not the fun level, but the energy level. The participants are super-intense about what they're doing and why they're doing it.

The second interesting thing you'll witness is you can't identify the leader. When you are watching a high-performance team on Thursday you would say, "Aha, Charlie is the leader." Then you would watch them on Friday and you would say, "Whoops, wait a minute, Ed's the leader." Then you watch them on Saturday and you conclude your previous observations weren't right because Edna's the leader.

The leadership role is shifted almost instinctively, the members have a very high level of energy and they're continually shifting roles—it is very hard to create that on purpose. But when real teams focus on the basics, they will sometimes get to the point where their performance escalates to the extraordinary level. That's the best way for it to happen.

VB: They don't need a leader or a facilitator, it just happens among themselves.

Jon Katzenbach: That's right. They do not need a leader or facilitator. A leader or a facilitator in a high-performance team gets in the way.

VB: It has often been said that effective, innovative leaders challenge their organizations to not accept the status quo and to constantly and urgently drive for change. You say, "every single major change effort we know about has depended on teams." Would you explain?

Jon Katzenbach: A team is a very useful element in change efforts. In every successful major change effort I have ever seen, real teams form. Sometimes they're formed on purpose and sometimes they form because the situation demands it or compels them to work as a team.

You never find a successful change effort that doesn't somewhere have a real team. Sometimes on their own they come together because they have to get something done. If you want constructive behaviors of people in any significant way, you want to use team efforts for critical tasks.

That doesn't mean you smother the effort with teaming. You're quite selective about where you need a team, but it also means that you don't avoid making sure you form teams where you need them.

VB: Has the importance of having effective teams increased with the current economic challenges many organizations are facing, and with the ever-increasing globalization and competition among businesses?

Jon Katzenbach: I think so because, as I said earlier, a team is about performance.

If you have a performance challenge because you're in trouble in your marketplace, or your financial situation is in jeopardy and you have to cut costs, the temptation is mandate cost reductions. You say, "We're going to cut by a pre-determined percentage because of necessity—so don't bother with me with the rationale, just make the cuts."

A team can help you a lot to make wiser decisions on such business adjustments. Teams are vital performance unit and can be effectively focused on reducing costs and overheads.

The more intense the performance pressure, the more you want to be able to use teams because a team is a performance unit. That's what their good at.

VB: So teams would also be useful for changing a company's business strategy?

Jon Katzenbach: It would be but you could change the business strategy in different ways. You could use a team or not.

There are two ways a senior leadership group that wants to re-shape their strategy could go about it. They could say, "We want to re-shape our strategy, so we're going to hire a consulting firm to evaluate the market." Or maybe, "We're going to send some of our people to review and develop options and then present a set of strategic alternatives to the senior leadership group—and we will decide which strategy is best."

That would be making use of a team only in preparation for recommendations to the senior leadership group. We could assemble a small team to evaluate the competitive situation and present their findings to the senior leadership group.

Or we could encourage the senior leadership group to function as a real team. In that case you would have to make sure they had more work to do. They have to do something more than just vote on which strategy they want. They have go off for two or three days or they have to break up into sub-groups, do competitive evaluations, and then come back together to do real work.

Teams do real work. They don't just exchange information, debate with one another and come to a consensus vote. That's not a real team.

A team has to do real work. It could be a strategy re-evaluation. In this case you probably would want teams to do at least some of the work. The real question is do we want the senior leadership group to function as a team or not, because it can work either way.

VB: You say future organizational structures will be simpler and more flexible, will strike a balance of organizing work and behavior around processes, and will emphasize teams as the key performance units of the company.

Is it possible that teams will eventually be replaced by some other structures such as temporary aggregations of independent persons working in cyberspace?

Jon Katzenbach: I don't think they'll be replaced but I think they will be supplemented and complemented by other structures, and so there may be fewer of them.

Teams have been around for hundreds of years. I could argue that a team wrote the Declaration of Independence. The reason that they've been around for hundreds of years is that they work.

Teams are small, focused groups that do things that are best done by small, focused groups. That's always going to be true. But increasingly we're going to see more and more extended groupings that are focus networks than they are teams.

For example, there is the notion of a purpose-driven council, which is a group that works with a focus network and some sub-teams. We didn't use that term ten years ago. We didn't have that concept. We didn't know the difference because we didn't realize the value of focus networks. I think you're going to have more of these types of structures but I don't think you'll ever be without teams.

VB: What aspects of teams still need to be researched and written about?

Jon Katzenbach: The most important question is how they activate the informal elements of your organization. That is the most important opportunity for progress because the more the informal networks are in synch with the formal structures, the more you're going to get the behaviour the high performance that you need.

You want the informal and formal to work together and they don't naturally do that. A team is a useful way. It is a formal mechanism that can help spark the informal networks in an organization. I think that needs more research.

VB: Were you, your co-author and other members of the core team, who researched and wrote The Wisdom of Crowds, an extraordinary team? Did you use most of the principles of highly effective teams for this project?

Jon Katzenbach: We were once in a while but not the whole time. We were writing a book.

I once heard Peter Drucker make the comment, "I have never been on a team because writing a book is a not a team task." He was right. Writing a book is not a team task. There are team tasks associated with the research, but the actual writing is not really a team task.

VB: The research work for the book required team effort?

Jon Katzenbach: The people involved in the research effort did often work as a real team.

VB: You used the principles of highly effective teams for the project?

Jon Katzenbach: Yes we did. Absolutely.

VB: You wrote The Discipline of Teams in 2001 and a paperback edition is scheduled to be released in January 2009. Will the paperback be enhanced or revised from the first edition?

Jon Katzenbach: The paperback edition doesn't have anything other than what was in the original edition. The Discipline of Teams is a follow-up to The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization.

There are two things in the The Discipline of Teams that weren't in the first book. We devote two or three chapters to virtual teaming, so there are some insights on virtual teaming that are quite valuable. Secondly, we made it a handbook with exercises that you can use to increase your team capability.

VB: Are any other books about teams a must read?

Jon Katzenbach: Richard Hackman at Harvard has written several books and articles that are very good works about teaming, including Groups that Work (And Those That Don't), Leading Teams Setting the Stage for Great Performances and Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make them Great.

Another professor at Harvard Business School by the name of Amy Edmondson has done some seminal work on the value of safe space. A safe space means creating a group session where people feel free to express contrary views. That's valuable in team performance situations. I think Amy's work deserves more attention than it gets.

VB: Has she written any books you would recommend?

Jon Katzenbach: Yes, Organizational Learning and Competitive Advantage Learning.

VB: Any other authors or works that come to mind?

Jon Katzenbach: Well, I could hawk my new book on Jumping Together, which is how you integrate the formal and the informal structures in organizations. We talk about how teams can work in that regard.

VB: Has it been published?

Jon Katzenbach: No. It's not out yet. We're just now finishing it and we're having discussions with two or three publishers, so I don't know who is going to publish it yet.

VB: Anything else about teams that we haven't talked about that our readers should know about?

Jon Katzenbach: I think you've got it well covered. I thought your questions were great ones.

VB: Thank you. I very much appreciate the time you've taken to talk to me.

Many think of teams as a feel-good approach to engaging in activities. In The Wisdom of Teams the authors advise that performance outcomes and results must be the primary objective in choosing the team approach—they must have a clear and compelling performance challenge. Significant performance challenges foster teams.

The team discipline will continue to be essential to meet challenges such as innovation, creativity, re-engineering, quality, and customer service. And teams will increasingly determine the winners from the losers in the global economy. The Wisdom of Teams.

+link Jon R. Katzenbach is a founder and senior partner of Katzenbach Partners. He is a former director of McKinsey & Company, where he worked for over 35 years. Jon graduated with distinction from Stanford University with a BA in economics, and with an MBA from Harvard University Graduate School of Business, where he was a Baker Scholar.


I enjoyed your interview with Katzenbach. I use his model for the team building events I facilitate. And it was good to hear him emphasize performance over togetherness. So many companies want a quick "team bond" and wonder why it doesn't have any impact on their teams.
- Warwick

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