Jarrod Jenkins's Reviews > The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization,

The Wisdom of Teams by Jon R. Katzenbach
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Oct 12, 2011

did not like it
bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in October, 2011

Slogging through this crap was one of the more unpleasant reading experiences I've had. The only thing worse than a terrible topic for a book is a terrible topic poorly executed. The topic: teams and teamwork. The execution: nothing more than extremely general, common sense points, sometimes listed. I learned literally nothing worthwhile. One can envision middle and upper managers thinking this book will inspire their underlings to come together as great teams and perform well at the tasks assigned them. Fools.

The last time I encountered a more formidable collection of banalities, Barack Obama was giving a speech. Even the vignettes about successful teams the authors provide us, like the one about the Burlington Northern intermodal team transitioning away from some railroad transportation regulations or Enron's Deal-to-Steel task force, are so broad in description as to be useless. For example, "Everyone on the team held each other mutually accountable."

The authors fail to realize that successful teams are great precisely because they are not self-consciously so. If there is a task that needs completion or an obstacle to be surmounted, great teams focus always on that task or obstacle, not on the fact of being a team. Being a team arises naturally almost as an afterthought. If you have to tell the team to "do real work," as the authors suggest, I suggest the problems with your team run pretty deep.

Katzenbach's and Smith's attempt to analyze team dynamics is tedious, indescribably boring, and utterly useless. Providing examples is the best way to illustrate just how awful this book is. It's like the business world equivalent of John Gray's "Men, Women, and Relationships." Here is a flavor of some of Katzenbach's and Smith's wisdom:

Random sentence 1: "When teams are deployed in the right places and against the right challenges, they have a significant impact on enterprise performance over time."

Random sentence 2: "Dealing with these pressures and capitalizing on exploding opportunities will require leaders to become much more discriminating in identifying team opportunities and integrating the naturally conflicting disciplines of team and single-leader approaches."

Random sentence 3: "When this happens, of course, the team at the top helps generate the performance focus and enthusiasm so critical to building an energized work force focused on productivity and learning as well as skill-based sources of competitive advantage."

(Dear God, just look at random sentence 3! This has all the hallmarks of B.S. corporate-speak. Look at all those trite, meaningless phrases in one sentence: "the team at the top," "generate performance focus," "energized work force," "focused on productivity," "skill-based," "competitive advantage." Kill me. At a meaty 300+ pages, there's lots more where this came from.)

If you were to read this book, which you shouldn't, here's what you'd learn:

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."

There are five points on the team performance curve:
1. Working groups
2. Pseudo-teams
3. Potential teams
4. Real teams
5. High performance teams

There are six essentials of good team leadership:
1. Keep the purpose, goals, and approach relevant and meaningful
2. Build commitment and confidence
3. Strengthen the mix and level of skills
4. Manage relationships with outsiders including obstacles
5. Create opportunities for others
6. Do real work

To get teams unstuck from ruts:
1. Revisit the basics
2. Go for small wins
3. Inject new information and approaches
4. Use facilitators or training
5. Change team membership, including the leader

Path to high performance:
1. Carve out team assignments that tackle specific issues
2. Assign work to subsets of the team
3. Determine team membership based on skill, not position
4. Require all members do equal amounts of real work
5. Break down the hierarchical patterns of interaction
6. Set and follow rules of behavior similar to those used by other teams

Six characteristics of a high performing organization:
1. Balanced performance results
2. Clear, challenging aspirations
3. Committed and focused leadership
4. An energized work force dedicated to productivity and learning
5. Skills-based approach to competitive advantage
6. Open communications and knowledgeable management

The world is overflowing with interesting ideas and people. Don't waste your time here.
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