Some Wisdom from The Wisdom of Teams

September 7, 2010

Teamwork in a business sense can be difficult to for some people to get their arms around. As we increase the use of software teams – particularly as Agile development takes hold – understanding the nature of teamwork and what to expect is vital.

The book, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith was published in 1993, but having read it recently I find that it has a great deal of insight that is applicable in today's teamwork-oriented approach of Agile software development. If you want to understand teamwork, this book can provide you an excellent primer on business teams.

What is a team?

"A team is 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."

Can you have large teams?

"A larger number of people can become a team, but they are likely to break into subteams. Large numbers of people have trouble interacting constructively as a group, much less agree on actionable specifics."

Here's a problem the book discusses that Scrum solves by defining the roles and protocols of team interaction:

"Team members must agree on who will do particular jobs, how schedules will be set and adhered to, what skills need to be developed, how continuing membership is to be earned, and how the group will make and modify decisions, including how and when to modify its approach to getting the job done."

The book makes note of key behavioral and mindset changes that must take place:

Individual accountabilityMutual support, joint accountability in addition to individual accountability
Dividing those who think and decide from those who work and doExpecting everyone to think, work, and do.
Building functional excellence through each person executing a narrow set of tasks ever more efficientlyEncouraging people to play multiple roles and work together interchangeably on continuous improvement
Relying on managerial controlGetting people to buy into meaningful purpose, to help shape direction, and to learn.
A fair day's pay for a fair day's workAspiring to personal growth that expands as well as exploits each person's capabilities

Finally, the book illustrates the Team Performance Curve, which traces the development of a team from the beginning stage of Working Group through the ultimate goal of becoming a High-Performance Team:

As a team moves from a Working Group that is nothing more than a collection of individuals towards a real team, the effectiveness of the team increases. The Potential Team is just barely coordinating its efforts, whereas the members of a Real Team have ceased to compete with each other and are working as a team, leveraging complimentary skills. A High-Performing Team maximizes effectiveness and impact due to their deep commitment to both each other and the business's needs.

While team effectiveness increases as you move anywhere along the curve, the performance impact can actually decrease as the working group transitions to an actual team. Moving along the curve and becoming both more effective in an impactful way involves patience, time, and commitment.