Why do Teams Fail?
Some of the reasons why teams fall short.
Red Bull has enjoyed a great deal of success over the past 20 years, and one of the reasons for their phenomenal growth has been their ability to build high-performing teams. Two of the topics I have discussed with Red Bull’s Senior Leaders and Talent Management organization were the frequency in which high-performing teams occur and the reasons why they fail to happen. With respect to the first question, it turns out that high-performing teams are actually quite rare. Of the hundreds of teams people are part of over the course of the lives, only a handful end up high performing. Research by Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman back this up, as their studies show that only 1 in 5 teams are high performing. But why does this have to be the case? What would happen to organizational performance if this percentage of high-performing teams doubled or tripled? In order to answer these questions it is worth exploring four of the more common reasons why team fail.
Reason #1: Bad Leadership. There is considerable research showing that the base rate of managerial incompetence is somewhere around 65 percent. Two out of every three people in positions of authority fall short of the mark because they: (a) lack the smarts or expertise needed to exercise good judgment; (b) operate at too low a level; (c) have personalities that irritate staffs; or (d) are strategic suck ups who got promoted but lack any talent for leadership. These characteristics make it difficult for team leaders to establish credibility, engage employees, and build high-performing teams.
Reason #2: “It Just Doesn’t Matter” was one of the team chants from the movie Meatballs and applies to many public and private teams. Some teams have poor leadership and teamwork yet still produce acceptable results, as the products sold may be well-positioned (iPhones), the processes for getting work done well-established (Agile or Lean), or the services provided so unique that customers are left with few options (internal help desks). These factors mask ineffective teamwork. Two interesting questions for organizations are: what percentage of their teams actually fall into this category? and what would happen if these teams became truly high performing?
Reason #3: Common Misunderstandings about Teams. Mark Twain famously said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Even good leaders can have faulty mental models when it comes to teamwork. For example, most people think that teams outperform groups or individuals when research shows the nature of the work to be performed dictates which of these three organizing approaches is optimal. Other leaders treat groups as teams and teams as groups and end up with frustrated direct reports and mediocre results. Others erroneously believe professional sports teams are good proxies for business teams, yet differences in goal definition, practice-to-play ratios, and the attention paid to team talent selection and development makes these analogies a big stretch.
Reason #4: If You Don’t Know Where You Are Going, You’ll Likely End Up Somewhere Else. A final reason why teams fail is that leaders do not have good roadmaps for launching new teams, diagnosing the performance of existing teams, merging teams, managing virtual teams, leading groups versus teams, on-boarding new team members, etc. Many well-known team models have no basis in research, are based on teams completely different from those found in public or private institutions, only address a narrow range of team issues (i.e., team member personality traits or types), or are too complicated to be useful. Because of these issue most leaders end up going with their gut when trying to build high performing teams. The Rocket Model was designed to give leaders and team coaches a research-based and practical framework for understanding and improving team performance. Those interested in learning more about team performance improvement should download the free Rocket Model e-book from www.therocketmodel.com.
Gordon Curphy is a leadership consultant specializing in succession planning, executive coaching, top team facilitation, and leadership development. A prolific author, he has written 19 books and numerous chapters and articles on leadership. You can find more about Gordon’s leadership books and consulting services at: www.curphyconsulting.com and www.TheRocketModel.com.