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Published: November 1, 2010

 
 

What Washington Needs to Learn about Teams

Both big business and big government should shift their management cultures from compromise to integration.

In September, Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor suggested that U.S. President Barack Obama, who was about to lose his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, should bring a few business gurus on board. Because of my long-standing work with team performance (my book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization was published by Harvard Business School Press in 1993), I was named as one of them. McGregor thought the president would benefit from having a single person responsible for an accountable outcome, rather than relying on the give-and-take of a team for making a decision. She also clearly felt that government needs to hire more thinkers like me: those who have a private-sector background and understand the way business operates.

Although I certainly appreciate the compliment, I don’t agree that the advice should flow in only one direction. Yes, Washington can learn some things from business teams about how to address performance challenges. But believe it or not, corporate leadership teams can also glean some important insights from Washington’s abortive team efforts — even given its emotionally charged atmosphere of political infighting. To be sure, the bipolar political cultures in elected government bodies differ markedly from the individual accountability cultures in for-profit corporations. Yet when it comes to team effectiveness among senior leaders, the two cultures face surprisingly similar challenges. Indeed, we find very few “real” teams at the top in either the public or the private sector — which helps explain why most companies and government agencies have such serious problems these days with accountability and performance.

A real team, in my view, is something very specific. It differs from the more common “single-leader unit” in three important ways. First, all members of a real team have an equal level of emotional commitment to the team’s purpose and goals. Second, the leadership role shifts easily among the members based on the skills and experience they have and the challenges of the moment, rather than on any hierarchical positions. Third, the team members hold one another accountable for the quality of their collective work. Members of real teams subordinate their formal affiliations, personal prejudices, and loyalties to the team’s purpose and goals.

These practices together give real teams both the capability and the accountability they need to accomplish their tasks. Any organization that needs to produce results will need to cultivate real teams to do so. Yet as simple as this principle may sound, real teams are rare. It takes both discipline and hard work to operate as a real team. Perhaps that’s why most company teams work as real teams only when they feel compelled to, either by their supervisors or by external forces.

Similarly, you don’t have to be a team expert to recognize that most committees and working groups in Washington fail to function as real teams. The failure is especially pronounced with any bipartisan group. Whenever you see a so-called bipartisan team whose recommendations split along party lines, you can be pretty certain it did not function as a real team. For one thing, team members obviously did not subordinate their formal affiliations, personal prejudices, and loyalties to the team’s purpose and goals. The clashing loyalties of the members may not be the primary culprit. Both sides might well have been willing to find a common ground, but nobody had put in place the necessary preparation: the time and process design required to get the members of the team to integrate conflicting beliefs, experiences, and views in ways that got the best of both perspectives. Without that intensive time and work, and the patience to see it through, there will not and cannot be any true bipartisanship.

 
 
 
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