• Strategy
  • CFO.com | US

It’s about “Team”

A battery of new management books attacks the problem of how to get employees to meld into groups and still stay focused on the big corporate picture.

The life of any business manager would be so much more pleasant if one of the classic American myths—that of the lone inventor—were true.

If so, management could tell the people who work for them to go to their offices (or cubicles) and stay there until they came up with something that was both truly great and that would make the company gobs of money.

But recent research shows that Thomas A. Edison didn’t do much by himself; Philo T. Farnsworth can only be credited as one of the inventors of television; and not even the Wright brothers deserve all the credit for the airplane.

If such geniuses couldn’t come up with their innovations on their own, what chances do the average Jane or Joe have?

The sad truth is that people need to work in teams. And the sadder truth is teams are often less effective than managers would like them to be. Into that vacuum has rushed a new crop of books—now in stores or soon to be—that discuss how to improve the performance of teams.

Starting at a very appropriate place—the beginning—John Stahl-Wert and Ken Jennings spin a fable about getting the most out of your workers in Ten Thousand Horses (Berrett-Koehler, $19.95).

The authors, who also wrote The Serving Leader, argue that before anything positive can happen inside a team, employees truly must be committed to the task at hand. If managers can’t create a clear, compelling reason for employees to give work their all—think of Steve Jobs’ exhortation to the workforce at Apple to “build insanely great products”—they simply aren’t going to get the best out of them. A paycheck simply isn’t enough.

What’s more, employers need to understand that the best teams aren’t going to produce success immediately, no matter what they do. As Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology at Washington University, points out in Group Genius (Basic Books, $26.95) “innovation is inefficient.” It’s best for teams to generate as many ideas as possible, and that means, by definition, many of those ideas won’t pan out.

Employers also need to know, Sawyer says, that turning up the heat simply doesn’t work. “At some companies,” Sawyer writes, “tight deadlines and long hours are a semiofficial part of the company’s philosophy, but the reality is while pressure makes people work harder, it also makes them less creative.” The focus quickly becomes meeting the deadline and not coming up with the best possible solution.

The reality is, he says, “big ideas take time.”

So, does this mean that the manager is useless in getting the most of teams? No, but Sawyer’s solution comes off a tad squishy. “The key to improved innovation is managing a paradox: establishing a goal that provides a focus for the team—just enough of one so that team members can tell when they move closer to a solution—but one that is open-ended enough for problem-finding creativity to emerge.”

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