Harvard Business Review on Building Better Teams: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: September 16th, 2011 by bobmorris

Harvard Business Review on Building Better Teams
Various Contributors
Harvard Business Review Press (2011)

How and why some teams “shoot out the lights”…and most don’t

Those who aspire to help create and then lead create teams that deliver high-impact results will find the material in this HBR book invaluable. It is one of the volumes in a series of anthologies of articles that first appeared in Harvard Business Review. Authors of the ten articles focus on one or more components of a process by which to boost team performance through mutual accountability, motivate large and diverse groups, increase team members’ emotional intelligence, salvage an under-performing team, prevent or overcome decision deadlock, extract excellent results from “a bunch of touchy superstars,” compete constructively senior-level colleagues, and ensure productivity of far-flung teams.

Having read all of the articles when they were published individually, I can personally attest to the brilliance of their authors’ (or co-authors’) insights and the eloquence with which they are expressed. Two substantial value-added benefits should also be noted: If all of the articles were purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be at least $60-75; they are now conveniently bound in a single volume for a fraction of that cost.

I now provide two brief excerpts that are representative of the high quality of all ten articles:

In “The Discipline of Teams,” Jon Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith offer some practical suggestions that are relevant to almost any team (whatever its objectives) in almost any organization (whatever its size and nature may be). They suggest that a team’s essential discipline comprises five characteristics:

1. A meaningful common purpose that the team has helped to shape.
2. Specific performance goals that flow from the common purpose.
3. A mix of complementary skills.
4. A strong commitment to how the work gets done.
5. Mutual as well as individual accountability.

They also discuss several different approaches that have worked well for many high-impact teams:

• Establish urgency, demanding performance standards, and clear direction.
• Select members for skill and skill potential, not personality.
• Pay particular attention to first meetings and actions because initial impressions always mean a great deal, for better or worse.
• Set crystal clear rules of behavior

In “The Tough Work of Turning Around a Team,” former NFL head coach Bill Parcells offers this advice:

“If you want to get the most out of people, you have to apply pressure – that’s the only thing that any of us really responds to. As a coach, I’ve always tried to turn up the heat under my people, to constantly push them to perform at a high level.

“Creating pressure in an organization requires creating confrontation, and it can get very intense, very emotional. I’ve seen coaches avoid confrontations with their players because they don’t like conflict, and I assume the same thing is true among the leaders of business teams. But I’ve actually come to relish confrontation, not because it makes me feel powerful but because it provides an opportunity to get things straight with people. It’s nit until you look people in the eye that you get to the sources of their behavior and motivation. Without confrontation, you’re not going to change the way they think and act.”

Other articles in this anthology I especially enjoyed include “Why Teams Don’t Work” (Diane Coutu), ‘Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups” (Vanessa Urch Druskay and Steven B. Wolff), and “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight” (Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy, and L.J. Bourgeois III).


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