Best Book: The Wisdom of Teams

katzenbach-smith_3670Once in awhile, a book comes along that is so seminal, so formational, that it stands as a standard for a long time.  One such book, for me anyway, is Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith’s, The Wisdom of Teams.  For congregational leaders, who do so much in small group settings, this is an essential resource.  There are few practical resources that offer as much valuable counsel.

The definition of teams, “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” (p. 45), is an incredibly helpful description, and one which bears careful analysis:

Small number of people

Too often, we make it impossible to be effective by trying to include too many people — wanting everyone to have a voice.  Research from a wide variety of disciplines confirms that in situations of decision-making and learning/personal formation group of 5-7 members are ideal, and benefits begin to decrease dramatically in groups exceeding 8-9 members.  If we want to be inclusive, we may include as many people as we want, but if we want to be effective we need to think small.

Complementary skills

There is a tendency to group like thinking, like experienced, and like focused people together.  We put people with financial experience on our finance committees, educators on our education teams, creative and flamboyant people on worship.  But when you only bunch like skill- and knowledge-sets together, it is virtually impossible to “think outside the box.”  Mixing complementary skills makes a greater positive impact than bunching like skills.  When we pool inward-focused skills like administration, organization, helping, and care-giving to outward-focused skills like compassion, leadership, service and generosity, we unleash a much larger potential for success.  Our vision should be to create teams that produce results greater than the sum of their parts.

Committed to a common purpose

When everyone on the team has a clear sense of purpose, it greatly increases the chance of success.  Everyone pulling in the same direction, committed to the same ends, makes any team formidable.  Nothing improves a team’s chances of success like alignment.  When the whole team understands why it exists and what is expected, it pulls together in impressive ways.

Committed to performance goals

Defining specific outcomes — what precisely and exactly we want to accomplish — greatly increases our chances at success.  For a group to arrive at consensus on its own important work provides a high level of support and commitment.  The more precise our goals and objectives, the better we can organize our efforts for effectiveness.

Committed to a common approach

How we achieve our goals is almost as important as what the goals are in the first place.  If everyone goes off in their own direction, trying to do what they know and are familiar with, success depends on how well any one individual performs.  When the “how” to perform is developed by the team, and everyone works together following the same plan, the chances of success increase exponentially.

For which they hold themselves mutually accountable

Teams that are micro-managed from outside or above are less effective than those who develop for themselves standards, expectations, and structures of accountability.  Everyone on a team must perform, and when it is clear that there are rewards for good performance and consequences for poor performance, everyone tends to do better.

The Wisdom of Teams doesn’t guarantee success, but with almost every page it offers helpful and insightful advice that can help any team, working group, study group, or formation experience more effective.  In a church like ours, dedicated to small group ministries, Katzenbach and Smith offer some of the best guidance to make our ministries work well.

1 reply

  1. Hi Dan,
    Thanks so much for sharing this recommendation. I think committing to specific performance goals is particularly important but something we shy away from in the church. It has certainly been a weakness in the teams I have had a leadership role on.

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