Building World-Class Teams

28 September 2010 Chris Majer

Chris Majer, CEO of the Human Potential Project, explains how to build world-class teams through coordination.

No one is going to argue with the claim that it is a whole new world out there. The business world that we grew up in is gone and those who are sitting on the sidelines waiting for things to go "back to normal" will be waiting for a very long time. The primary change is that we are no longer living in the industrial age. We have entered what we will call the coordination age. In today's world, the value generators in any business are coordination workers. These are people that are educated, agile, mobile, creative, and effective at working across organisational boundaries to solve problems. They create value by their effective coordination with others to deploy the unique capabilities of an organisation to satisfy customers.

Welcome to the coordination era. In this new world, the industrial age practices of leadership and management, which focus on analysis, order and supervision, that are still the standard fare in business schools and the norm in most every organisation are increasingly irrelevant. Instead, anyone who is serious about having a career as a manager is going to need to develop a new set of skills. Primary amongst them is the capacity to generate innovation, mobilise action and lead teams.

There's no "I" in team

Over the last decade, the importance of teamwork has been the subject of hundreds of books, thousands of papers and uncountable articles. You can find any number of consultants, former sports coaches, motivators and professors who will offer you advice and counsel. The only thing that is clear amongst all of the clutter is that no one to date has been able to consistently generate world-class teams. If they had, we wouldn't need all of the books, tapes and talks.

I don't claim to have the answer, but I do have a new way of looking at the practice of building teams that is based, not on theories, but real world experience. The Human Potential Project began in the early 1980s working with athletes and soldiers, people who are under constant pressure to perform, helping them improve their individual and team performance. What we quickly came to see was that the traditional approach to teaching, which was focused on dispensing information for the sake of producing understanding, was of no value. Teams don't learn to function by reading books, listening to motivational talks, or gathering silly tips and techniques - they learn by developing new practices.

"In today's world, the value generators in any business are coordination workers."

When Cheryl and Estelle came to us they were recreational cyclists who had never raced a day in their lives. They had been to a meeting of their bike club where they saw a movie about the Race Across America (RAM). In the movie they learned that no two women had ever done the race on a tandem bike and decided they would be the first.

We trained them for six months and put in place new practices for communication, coordination and managing their moods. On top of leading edge physical training, these new practices enabled them to ride from Santa Monica to New York in ten days and 22 hours, faster than most of us would care to drive it. To this day they still hold the women's record.

With the Army's Tiger Brigade the challenge was different. Instead of a team of two there were 1,500 of them. The army did a pre and post-programme assessment and 90 days after our six-week-long programme was complete, they found that sick calls were down 50%, drug and alcohol abuse was down 60%, the number of soldiers overweight was down 66%, physical training test scores were up an average of 25% and commanders reported that morale was higher than it had ever been.

We took what we learned from athletes and soldiers and reshaped it to fit the corporate world. With AT&T the challenge was immense. The consumer products division, which was all of their phone stores and business offices, was losing $200 million a year and had been told they had 18 months to turn things around or the company would shut it down. We put 6,000 managers through ten days of work that was spread over 12 months. In the 48 months from the inception of our project they went from losing $200m to generating a cumulative total of $3bn in profit for the company.

"The key lies in understanding the deeper phenomenon that enables teams to function as a seamless unity."

How did we accomplish these seemingly impossible results? We know how to build and lead world-class teams. The key lies in understanding the deeper phenomenon that enables teams to function as a seamless unity. Where most efforts get off track is that they attempt to focus on the behaviours of teams and team members.

Commitment to change

The real key is in seeing the underlying set of commitments that constitute a team. Once you see that what holds a team together is a shared set of commitments, everything changes. Instead of attempting to manage people's behaviour and activities (the current norm in modern management) you work to design, track and manage a specific set of commitments. When these commitments are in place and alive then you don't need to worry about behaviours as they will take care of themselves.

The set of commitments that constitute a team are:

  • The commitment to own (not understand, agree with, or like) the shared values, vision, mission, strategy of the team
  • The commitment to produce and evoke trust - the foundation of any team
  • The commitment to generate a mood for success - cynicism, resentment, arrogance and complacency are not moods for success
  • The commitment to fulfil a role in the team's division of accountability
  • The commitment to shared standards for success
  • The commitment to the unity of authority - teams don't vote nor do they work on consensus, groups and communities do
  • The commitment to develop and carry on practices for learning and innovation - without this the team has no future
  • The commitment to the future of the people, team, and company. We don't burn people out to attain some short-term objective, we have an eye on the bigger game.

As is always the case, it is easier to speak about these commitments than it is to become a true manager of them. In the new world of coordination, where team work is everything, those who wish to build their careers and their enterprise will develop a new set of skills and open the door to a new future.