Want Successful Teams? Don’t Ignore This

When many think of innovation, they envision a lone creative genius toiling in a garage creating the next disruptive technology. That makes for a great movie, but the reality is for organizations recognized as serial innovators with a track record of a steady stream of profitable new products, innovation is more akin to a team sport. 

While new product development processes are important, teams who execute these projects is where the “rubber meets the road”, so to speak. Your processes might be considered world-class, and based on best-practices, but that will never make up for poor team performance.

Teams are a well-accepted way to deliver new products to market. According to Jon Katzenbach in his still relevant well-known book, The Wisdom of Teams (1), teams are the basic unit of performance in most all organizations, regardless of size. A unified, cohesive team made up of a diverse group with different perspectives and skill sets will outperform a collection of individuals. It is the concept of “1+1=3”. Teams provide organizations the flexibility to create a management unit focused on a single goal, then disbanded and re-assigned to other tasks once the goal is achieved.

But wait. Aren’t we all really out for ourselves and how to maximize our own personal success? In other words, are team members asking themselves: What’s in this for me? While that may be true in part, there is much evidence to suggest that this is not the entire story. As Jonathan Haidt writes in a recent book on human psychology (2):

“But its…true that people are groupish. We love to join teams, clubs, leagues and fraternities. We take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder with strangers toward common goals so enthusiastically that it seems as if our minds were designed for teamwork…we are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players”

So the question becomes if by our nature we want to be a part of a team, how can senior management foster and support high performance teams?

Much of the work by consultants, corporate trainers and others focus on the team itself to answer that question. Companies spend much money on team building activities, with the mistaken belief that is the answer. That’s not the first place to look if you want to create strong teams: the organization’s culture is. Does it support innovation? Does it support team performance? And what exactly does that mean?

To illustrate how the overall culture can negatively affect team performance, consider the graphic below. Do you think this might reflect what individual team members are thinking at some of your company’s project team meetings? What if this project is high risk, or is critically important to the company’s survival?  If so, you have a problem, and that problem is the ultimate responsibility of the senior leader within the organization, whether a CEO, division President, or owner of a small company. It is not the team’s fault. No amount of “team bonding” activities is going to solve this problem.

How do you describe your company’s culture? A chemistry analogy is useful. We like order in our organizations. Your organization chart is a manifestation of our need for order, akin to a “crystalline solid”. The culture is best described as “amorphous”. That means without structure, without a clearly defined shape or form. Indeterminate if you like. For me, I think culture is best represented by how an employee might respond to this statement: “This is how we do things here and what is expected of me.” Above all else, it has nothing to do with your written mission statement. Those are words and typically how the organization culture really functions has little to do with that. Culture is something that must be nurtured by senior management. It can be destroyed quickly, and is difficult to reconstitute.

Above all, a culture that supports teams and ultimately innovation can be viewed in the context of a sustainable competitive advantage. Products and processes can be easily copied by your competitors. Culture cannot.

There is not one formula for creating a culture that supports teams, but I believe there are five key factors (3):

How freely can employees speak their mind without fear from retribution or ridicule by management or other employees? Does management penalize “bad news”? Mutual trust must permeate the organization. How does senior management treat “good failure”? Does management pontificate about how innovative they are, but then punish teams when they take a calculated, well-thought out risk and fail? What about integrity and honesty? Does management say one thing and do something else? And finally, does every employee feel responsible to their co-workers? That is much more enduring as a way to motivate but requires a fundamental shift in how you approach HR policies. Notice that all these factors must be modeled by senior management, flow down, and back up.

In summary, successful teams start with a supportive culture. Without that, all the training, team-building and deploying “best practices” at the team level will mean little. Furthermore senior management is ultimately responsible for developing a culture that uniquely fits their organization and can be the basis of sustainable competitive advantage.


  1. Jon R. Katzenbach & Douglas K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993)
  2. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2012)
  3. These ideas are detailed in a white paper entitled “Tenants of Management Model 2.0”. For a free copy, email a request here.

About the Author

Jeff Groh is President of New Product Visions located in Flat Rock, NC. New Product Visions helps companies drive revenue and earnings growth by improving their innovation management practices. We focus on processes, organization, management engagement and culture. Services include consulting, Innovation Coach™ Workshops, Your Innovation Coach online consulting service and software enablers. Mr. Groh spent 30+ years in industry in a variety of management roles in sales, manufacturing and new product development prior to starting New Product Visions. For additional information or to join our mailing list, contact us. Available for select speaking engagements.


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