There are three things that can be said about human knowledge with total conviction. All of it is interpretation. Much of it is temporary. And a great deal of it is fallacy.
Management knowledge in particular has a habit of being shaped by errors of logic and flawed judgments that distort our comprehension of the impulses underpinning human performance. Management practices that may have come relatively close to the truth at some stage eventually lose their validity, occasionally becoming absurdly irrelevant in a changed environment. There is no greater delusion in the entire management literature than that of high performing teams.
During the mid to late 20th century teams were all the rage. In every business school across Europe and the US it became de rigeur to extol the virtues of teams. Countless programs were devised around teams and teamwork including how to extract the best performance from team members. There was no hesitation in adopting the new credo.
No doubts were entertained about the effectiveness of teamwork in spite of evidence suggesting not many teams generated even adequate results. The philosophy of Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, Lean Management, and associated methods were constructed around teams. Games were designed to prove that teams consistently produced more robust solutions to complicated problems than any individual could. Great companies invariably grew from the efforts of the executive leadership team – or so it was alleged. Panacea for some, a four-letter word for others, the notion of team and teamwork took off with all the force of a Formula 1 car leaving the starting grid in a business community constantly searching for the next big idea.
Of course working in teams was (indeed is) more than just a passing fad. In industries like manufacturing, for example, teams have been the most widespread operating unit since the invention of the production line. Teams, after all, imply employees pursue a common purpose, access a diverse range of expertise and skills, and work to optimise the potential of a process, project or enterprise. All good one might suppose.
But then a coalition of organisational psychologists and social scientists stepped in and conceived an entirely new function: that of the team facilitator. Large consulting firms were quick off the mark in responding to this potentially massive new market. If teamwork was to become in vogue they had at least to develop a value proposition facilitators could use without much thought. A compelling metaphor they could use to sell the concept was a given. And, boys being boys, many of whom had only recently graduated from the playground before joining the big firms, they latched onto a simple idea more convincing than any other. The sports team. Yay!
All the elements for a major fraud were now in place. One of the most blatantly false misinterpretations in the entire history of management ‘science’ was created. By linking teamwork to group dynamics and the art of winning, a few social scientists, not to mention legions of consultants, conspired to define the product. Over time they would establish the character of teamwork; dictate its most important attributes; determine the optimal size, composition and behaviour of a team; and offer process roadmaps for every eventuality – from incremental improvement to problem solving, culture shaping and innovation. They were also quick to design psychographic instruments aimed at measuring the entire kit and caboodle – from each member’s volition to the team’s overall operational efficacy and supposed value to the enterprise.
At this stage to ignore the operational efficiencies obtainable from using teams was considered management negligence. Suddenly a huge variety of different groups posturing as teams germinated. They included cross-functional teams, leadership teams, policy teams, assurance teams, train-the-trainer teams, audit teams, executive teams, command teams, project teams, work teams, action teams, bootcamp teams, quality teams, advisory teams, multidisciplinary teams and, more recently, virtual teams and cross-border teams… The list was endless. And naturally each one of these types of team required its own architecture, ethos and toolkit. Consulting firms and their team facilitator clients were like pigs in mud. Teams were cool. Meanwhile the focus on teamwork also became the salvation of a human resources community badly in need of reinvention.
Very rapidly a new hypothesis about how best to organise and manage groups of employees had taken hold, twisting our understanding of operational effectiveness into impenetrable knots that seem almost impossible to disentangle. Teams acquired an air of grace. A dubious situation at best became even more entrenched as previous experience, observation and common sense were all made to fit the new trend.
Most of the theoretical background supporting this new generation of teams and team work came from just a few organisations, like the Tavistock Institute in London, as well as individuals like Meredith Belbin, David McClelland and Wilfred Bion.
Then in 1965 Bruce Tuckman advanced the theory of how the maturity required by teams to tackle progressively tougher problems followed a consistent path. Four elements were identified as the model growth path: forming, storming, norming and performing. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard later closely imitated Tuckman’s formula in their model called Situational Leadership. At one stroke the knowledge base for effective teamwork and its management was impregnable. Like Hersey-Blanchard, Tuckman assumed that as a team developed its capabilities, so relationships and leadership style should change to suit the new circumstances. And because the improved maturity within a team supposedly took months of expert moderation, professional facilitators found their diaries crammed with engagements.
And why not? It all sounded so plausible at the time. It was especially appealing to senior line managers who had little time to reflect on anything other than meeting their targets.
Hordes of consultants and legions of doyen facilitators designed their approach with Tuckman’s sequence in mind – often convincing executive leaders to wait months for a team to mature to a point where it could be self-sufficient. Except that it hardly ever did – so reliant had teams become on wet-nursing from their preferred suppliers.
It is human nature to see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe. It is my belief that literally hundreds of thousands of executives are hoodwinked into trusting processes for team development that bear little relationship to reality.
Because I am unsure as to how effective Tuckman’s sequence would be with geriatric and mentally-impaired groups or in a kindergarten I am unable to pronounce it sheer nonsense. But in a context where the urgent need to liberate the collective potential of intelligent and talented people is a critical performance factor, his theory makes no sense whatsoever in today’s corporate environment. However well-intentioned, it is an overlay that is merely a dangerous distraction.
Many times I have quietly despaired as benevolent facilitators, emphasizing a feel-good factor so that the organisation returns to them again and again for security, err by fashioning a process based upon Tuckman’s sequence. In every single case I have witnessed, and there have been many over the years, the process turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, actually holding back and stunting organisational potential. This was invariably attributed by the facilitator to the relative immaturity of the teams they were working with and subsequently used as evidence of the need for even further team building of a similar kind.
A theory is only as good as its exceptions. And the theory proposed by Tuckman does not stand up to scrutiny outside of a very narrow spectrum. It reduces the most subtle interactions and relationships into a formulaic two-by-two matrix that grossly distorts reality and is actually utterly misleading.
Human performance is not absolute but relative – to context as well as the nature of competition. This competitive factor is undoubtedly why sporting metaphors gained so much traction with business executives. It was effortlessly grasped and therefore eagerly adopted by those looking for a simple model with universal appeal.
But therein lies a paradox. Sport is simple in terms of its context, intentions and rules. Social and organisational dynamics in the world of business, together with the global context in which these now come to life, are anything but simple. Business has few equivalents to any team sport. Even at its most basic, business is about much more than just winning or losing. Business organisations are schemas of prolonged subtlety and extreme complexity in comparison with sporting events. The goal isn’t as simple as scoring more points against the competition. Nor should it be forgotten that games are conducted in impulsive bursts of energy rather than via protracted engagements with potentially millions of people, most of whom we will never actually meet.
The aptitudes required by today’s executives are not in the least bit compatible with the fitness, timing, spatial and coordinative skills demanded from sports luminaries. Whereas the rules of any game are constant, business executives work within complex business ecosystems where the rules are constantly shifting. This is why following a formula, or a sequence of steps like Tuckman’s, can hardly ever guarantee success. On the sports field a coach can dictate play. The sports team does not need to convene a debate to agree on their goal. In business such discussions are essential. However one looks at it the sporting analogy fails on every count.
There are alternatives of course. In recent years Fred Emery’s Search Conference, Harrison Owen’s Open Space and David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry, for example, have all used flexible processes to open up dialogue around complex, contentious or strategic issues with groups from between 10 to 1,000 people. Results from these processes are usually at least as beneficial as those generated by executive managers and often transcend the rather awkward, banal, propositions originating from so-called expert teams.
To be honest the most energising, satisfying and productive conversations in which I have personally engaged were largely unstructured to the point of not even having an agreed agenda. These electrifying and inspiring dialogues typically started and finished without external intervention or guidance of any kind. The sole pre-requisite is intelligent individuals who are eager to contribute to a productive dialogue.
In many cases, with the possible exception of work teams solving quality issues on the factory floor, informal group meetings of this kind – where a program or a theme evolves as the creative outcome of a wide-ranging discussion rather than as a pre-determined input that constrains free-range thinking – are invariably preferable to formally-constituted teams. They manifest confidence, achieve fascinating insights, explore a range of salient features, solve deeply ingrained problems with design thinking, and clarify what really matters when the strategic focus becomes too dispersed or diluted.
Corporate performance, whether it be success or failure, is incredibly difficult to quantify. Innumerable business books, case studies and articles claiming to provide a framework for business success are usually grossly oversimplified and inadequately researched. Misleading conclusions about a company’s management competence and organisational performance can so easily be drawn from marginal or temporary factors where mere correlation is misconstrued as causality.
Perhaps it is time to start believing in ourselves. To trust what we see with our own eyes. To develop the confidence to work effectively together without the need for the many crutches and feeble metaphors that are a burden on an organisation’s ability to think and reflect deeply for itself.
I often refer to the need of engineering escape velocity in an enterprise. By this I mean focusing the energy and commitment required to overcome the gravitational pull of past thinking and old practices. In this sense anything other than thrust must be payload – a drag on the system demanding that we acquire even greater amounts of thrust in order to change anything at all.
The formulae we consistently use as a substitute for freedom of interaction and strategic thinking – a sop to those organisational psychologists and consultants still peering over our shoulders – are expendable in today’s environment and a cost we can well do without. We should let go of them, trusting that we have all the talent, the commitment and the intelligence we need to accomplish what must be achieved without recourse to external facilitation and obsolete teamwork conventions. Let’s grow up… Now!