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Does your organisation pass the teamwork test?

Oct 05, 2009 Business Daily, Management

“Managers build their plans and strategies on the assumption that people in their firm are ready and willing to be team players, acting collectively to create or achieve something in the future.
The truth, however, is that these attitudes cannot be assumed to exist. In fact, they’re notably scarce. In many firms – even in most – these preconditions for strategy may not exist.”

David Maister, Strategy & the Fat Smoker (2008)

I return to David Maister’s fascinating new book this week. Most strategies are never implemented – fact. Most strategies never work – fact. Most strategies remain dreams – fact.

The fact that most strategic planning is utterly futile remains a depressing reality for most organisations. But why should this be so? Many factors militate against successful execution of strategy, but here Maister is homing in on one crucial one: teamwork.

Teamwork is one of the most overused words in the world. Every organisation has it as a value (doesn’t yours?); every CEO talks about it incessantly (doesn’t yours?); every company thinks it “works as a team” at all times (does yours?).

But the grim news is that very, very few organisations have a strong sense of “we” – a mutual commitment to a collective goal, a sense of group loyalty, a true cohesiveness. Very few organisations are able to generate a real “buzz” at the workplace – give their workers the feeling that there is nowhere else they would rather be, and nothing else they would rather be doing. In most organisations work is drudgery, something one is forced to do to pay the bills. In such places, no strategy is ever going to be delivered.

Most organisations simply fail to make employees feel any commitment to each other, to a bigger cause, to a future outcome. In fact, as Maister points out, 30-40 per cent of employees tend to be “solo short-term” players (individuals focused entirely on their personal, immediate gains); and another 20-30 per cent will be in the “team-play short-term” category (those who do act in coordination with others, but are still self-focused and leave to join another team rapidly if they don’t receive immediate personal benefits).

In other words, 70 per cent of your employees could be focused on themselves and on short-term gain. Yet a strategy, by definition, requires a collective focus and a willingness to build something that may happen far in the future. If less than a third of your people have the true “we’re in it together, this is bigger than any of us” mindset, then is it any surprise that you’ll never implement a strategy?

So what should be done? For one thing, a leader must try to minimise the impact of the self-centered players in the organisation. They should be deployed only where needed, and kept away from the rest of the pack. They are never going to be with you for the long term, and that should be recognised by both sides. People who do not have a long-term collective orientation may be “stars”, but they should not be sitting on your bench for too long.

Second, leaders must work really hard to build a compelling vision of the future of the organisation, and tirelessly enrol others in that vision. A persuasive leader can have some effect in convincing the unwilling that there is a bigger game to be played, a higher cause to be part of. People need to have meaning in their work if they are to commit to it, and it is the leader’s job to introduce this meaning.

Those leaders and organisations that do indeed succeed in creating a genuine team buzz reap the dividends. There is nothing stronger than a unique collective spirit in any organisation. It’s just that it’s so frighteningly rare…

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