Commentary: The Real Meaning of Team

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 01.01.2007


Today the importance of creating teams in organizations and the special value in getting good people to work together to solve problems is widely recognized. Nowhere is this more important than at the top of today's organizations, and especially within organizations facing the need to implement dramatic change.


Historically, the proper model for structuring an organization has been viewed as one that relies on a strong, extremely bright individual at the top upon whose shoulders rest all the key decisions of the organization. Within this individual's purview are the direction of day to day operations, coaching and guidance of the top executives of the company, and the establishment of vision for the future of the organization. Aspects of this time-tested model clearly remain valid today; extremely bright individuals at the top of any organization are critical to success.


One difference today, however, is that a new critical success factor for firms trying to compete in a global marketplace is the top leader's ability to multi-task and coordinate a wide range of individuals with a wide range of skills in order to maximize the number of key activities accomplished and key decisions being made. Critical to a modern organization's success is the creation of an executive team.


Often, corporate leaders form teams without really knowing the reason why. The number one reason for creating an executive team today is to facilitate appropriate prioritization of activities within the corporation and to apply the corporation's resources to get the most things accomplished the quickest. So why is that different than the typical model? The following example will help explain.


Under the traditional hierarchal model with a single unique individual responsible for prioritizing all primary activities and deciding all key decisions, there can be only one number-one priority for the organization as a whole. This is the simple truth of human biology/psychology. Any individual cannot have two conflicting priorities, so the leader at the top MUST, at least at some level, rank all activities based on some order of priority. This may be done subconsciously based on knowledge and experience, but it is ALWAYS done if one person is running a company.


In addition, marketing researchers have known for years that any one human can probably only rank and prioritize three to five choices. It is the reason that virtually all marketing research asks survey respondents to select from three to five choices, or rank certain options from one to five. Any more options than that and people tend to actually rank only a few, with the rest lumped somehow. Given this biological imperative it is unlikely and unrealistic to think that an owner, president or CEO can do otherwise. Thus having an individual take responsibility for prioritizing a company's actions and making all the “key” decisions means you not only get only one number-one priority but also only up to five activities that can really be “cared about” by the organization as a whole. To summarize: One leader = one priority and no more than 5 strategic activities.


Two things often result from this kind of situation. One is that the top leader either “generalizes” his or her priorities such that they can flex with the needs of the moment, e.g. their top priority becomes “the customer;” which is really a way of not making any activity a priority. Alternately, and if the leader is particularly effective, then the leader implements sequential number-one priorities, meaning they are very good at getting number-one accomplished and number-two successively becomes number-one, with a new number five or six progressively added to the bottom of the list. In this way a good leader can accomplish many annual priorities and perhaps twice as many if they have good support leaders.


However, sequential priorities assume a short time frame, and for an organization to be well positioned its top leadership should be working on long timelines, not a list of stuff that needs to be done this month. So, successful leaders that are employing sequential tactics are often holding the reins very tightly, and actually working at too great a level of detail. Thus they risk missing the overall and changing trends in the marketplace or new opportunities.


A key to implementing dramatic change in the face of global competition is in how many good decisions an organization can make and implement in a short timeframe – and for this you need a team.


The principal difference a leadership team makes is that it is possible to have as many number-one priorities as there are people on the team. Thus, if there are six people on the leadership team and they each have five key activities, then the whole team can go through a process of identifying the top thirty CORPORATE priorities. From this total list the team can then select the top six and each individual leader can take one of those as his or her personal number-one priority for the next year, regardless of the area this priority occurs in . In this kind of environment the group prioritizes all the actions without regard to whose “silo” those activities are in. Furthermore, if three of the top six corporate priorities are related to sales, then three of the six leaders have sales related top priorities to work on for the year; and so on and so forth until all thirty top priorities are divided up and everyone has only one number-one, and one number-two priority, and so on; each person, however, has no more than five total activities. Thus, from the corporation's point of view there are now six top priorities and thirty prioritized actions for the year instead of the one and five that would be the maximum possible under a single leader and traditional hierarchal model.


Sound crazy? It will if all your top leaders have limited skills and expertise in only one area. This brings us back to the fact that a critical success factor for today's firms lies in the leadership's ability to multi-task and coordinate a wide range of individuals with a wide range of skills. The most effective leadership group is composed of multi-talented multi-taskers that are capable of backing each other up and holding each other accountable in their differing areas. Thus they are able to help each other when needed as well.


Using a team approach will, over time, make obvious where there are missing skills on the leadership team. If there are consistently more number-one priorities in one area than another (e.g. you are always fighting fires in that area) then you either need different leadership in that area or that area should be subdivided among more specialists. In the above example, if you consistently find a need for more focus in the sales department then you either need a higher skilled sales manager or you need to divide the department in half (or thirds). Thus the prioritization process in a team is a clear indicator of organizational needs over a multiyear period.


Today the Internet provides us with more information instantly than we have ever been able to access before. But with that knowledge comes responsibility, and recognition that others have that same access. And with global trade it is not about just a few competitors but hundreds, thousands, or even millions. Facing this reality may require dramatic change in how you view your company, how priorities are set, and how decisions are made. Taking a dramatically new look at the executive team may be a good place to start.


Dr. Jeff Howe

January 2007