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Whirling Chief

Making Our Teams Matter

It’s not that teams aren’t important. They are. We know they are. Yet we live in a swirl of teams, often too busy or overwhelmed to see their true richness and tap their tremendous opportunity.

The issue? We don’t know what to do with the importance teams have in our lives.

Take a look at what we already know about the ubiquity and consistency of the importance of teams in organizations:

  • In my coaching and consulting company, when we begin working with a team that desires to improve effectiveness, we start with a simple question: “How many teams are you on here at work? How about at home and at play?” Over 10 years of asking this question, the answer is quite consistently around 8 or 9 teams.
  • You might wonder how many teams exist within your own organization. One good way to estimate this is to divide the number of employees by 7. If you have 14,000 employees, yes, it’s quite possibly you have 2,000 teams at your company, more or less.
  • Josh Bersin’s 2016 analysis of Global Human Capital trends seeks input from thousands of executives around the world. These executives’ number 1 concern, even higher than leadership development, culture, or workforce analytics? How to structure their organizations into highly effective and agile teams that can work across functional and organizational boundaries (pg. 3-5).
  • Global powerhouse Google spent two years studying their teams to determine which variables predict better team results. [Google, like Cisco and others, focus on and invest heavily in teams as the fundamental unit of productive work.] Certainly, they would find that the teams with the best results were made up of the most brilliant individuals, no? No. The teams with the best business results were ones with behavioral norms around empathy and listening, and in which leaders helped create a sense of psychological safety.
  • Finally, let’s return to Bersin, but this time his predictions of Human Capital trends in 2017. Not only is “designing organizations around teams” the number one trend (pp 6-8), but he now shows that our entire way of thinking about organizational management is evolving past the Industrial, Hierarchical, and Collaborative models, and now into Team-based management (Figure 9, pg. 19).

At a later date we can debate the merits of this shift to “Teams” as THE primary way of organizing and executing work in organizations. The difficulty at the moment is that the vast majority of us are simply not good at working collectively and fluidly in teams.

Remember that first question we ask clients? “How many teams are you on?” The next question we ask is: “What percentage of all the teams you are on would you rate as effective or highly effective?”. Over 10 years, the average answer is 20%. Put another way: 4 of 5 teams we put our lifetime of effort into don’t meet our own acceptable threshold of effectiveness.

And the kicker? When we ask our third question, “What percentage of struggling teams get any help improving their effectiveness?” the answer is a predictable and disheartening “less than 5%”.

The Pain

All of this is part of the continuing, unfolding process of organizations adapting to pressures. “Move faster. Change course with agility. Explore global opportunities. Leverage new technologies. Find ways to work with companies who were once our competitors, but now must become our partners.” Utilizing teams as the primary unit of work is simply our current answer to some ongoing, fundamental questions embedded within contemporary global organizations.

But it’s not a pain-free answer, and we have not created a trivial situation.

While organizing into Teams makes a lot of sense, and their importance is clear, it can be psychologically (and even physically) painful to be on a team that is struggling. Rather than feeling reasonably safe and trusting each other, we live on the edge of ‘fight or flight’. Rather than having the confidence that comes with clarity around the “why, what, and how” of our team, we emerge from conference rooms unable to comprehend why we tolerate such cluttered nonsense. We sleepwalk through conversations that could be deeply engaging, and we cling to habits that dull the senses.

The Crucible

Thankfully, we have choices.

Instead of being victims of our team experiences, we can choose to see teams as our most important organizing devices, and therefore worthy of investment of our attention, time, and resources. And if we did, we could begin to see teams for what they really are – the vital crucibles where we and our teammates find:

  • Goal Achievement and Performance
  • Relationship and Community
  • Context and Meaning
  • Feedback and Development
  • Conflict and Resolution

In this world, we now own our teams. We have deep sense of pride for how our team works and the things it produces. We are honored to be on a team and work to play a role in making each one more effective in its own unique way. We embrace and find wonder in these small social ecosystems that counteract the natural alienation we humans find in large, impersonal organizations.

The Ownership

Remember the last time you washed and waxed a rental car before returning it at the airport? No? That’s because no one does that. But the car we own? THAT ONE gets at least some level of differential treatment. It is an indispensable part of our daily journey. It safely carries our precious cargo. It brings us to new vistas. Without it, the destination is impossible.

Just like that car, that team…that’s one worth investing in. That team is an indispensable part of our journey together, it holds precious things, and it brings us to new and different outcomes.

If we can see that team, name its strengths and weaknesses, own its current and future state, then we earn both the right and responsibility to work towards its betterment.

When our primary challenge with teams is that we don’t know what to do with the importance teams have in our lives, seeing, naming, owning and working toward better outcomes is a path to a far preferable future. And it’s our choice.


  • 27 February 2017

By Ben Bratt

Ben Bratt is passionate about engaging teams, coaching leaders, and transforming people-related systems. Throughout his 20+ years in Fortune 500 telecom, IT, and automotive companies, Ben gained global experience and broad leadership expertise. Most recently, he was VP of Talent and Organization Capability at T-Mobile US, responsible for Talent Acquisition,...


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