Customer Reviews: The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (Collins Business Essentials)
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on August 2, 1998
This book is the result of research into why teams are important, what separates effective from ineffective teams, and how organizations can tap the effectiveness of teams to become high-performance organizations. Liberally citing research efforts in 47 specific organizations, Katzenbach and Smith share their insights into what makes teams work.
They emphasize teams as an important part of a three part cycle leading to a high-performance organization: a) shareholders who provide opportunities, b) employees who deliver value, and c) customers who generate returns. The performance targets in the high-performance organization are multidimensional, impacting all three cyclic contributors. Teams provide real benefits to employees, the result being an impact throughout the cycle. If employees increase the value they deliver, customers will increase the return, allowing shareholders to increase the opportunities available to employees.
Central to the thesis is their defini! tion of team, concentrating on "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." [45] The distinction is far more than semantic. Working groups who do not share all of these characteristics are not to be considered teams. "Unlike teams, working groups rely on the sum of 'individual bests' for their performance. They pursue no collective work products requiring joint effort. By choosing the team path instead of the working group, people commit to take the risks of conflict, joint work-products, and collective action necessary to build a common purpose, set of goals, approach, and mutual accountability" [85]
Katzenbach and Smith aren't completely negative toward working groups. On the contrary, they cite numerous situations in which the working group offers the most effective approach. But for turning ourselves into high-performanc! e organizations, the limitations of working groups must be ! overcome, and the power of teams must be harnessed, through increased risk. "People who call themselves teams but take no such risks are at best pseudo-teams." [85]
THE WISDOM OF TEAMS describes a Team Performance Curve that correlates team effectiveness against the performance impact of the team, resulting in the organizational path from working group, to pseudo-team, to potential team, to real team, and ultimately to high-performance team. The working group describes the organization of least team effectiveness, although not without performance impact. The performance of working groups, in fact, can be very effective owing to the individual contributions of the group members.
The pseudo-team - high team effectiveness, but usually less performance effectiveness - "has not focused on collective performance and is not really trying to achieve it." [91] The result is an organization that produces fewer results because of the forced team interactions. Th! e members are actually slowed down compared to the contribution they would make without the team overhead - as members of a working group. "In pseudo-teams, the sum of the whole is less than the potential of the individual parts." [91]
The "group for which there is a significant, incremental performance need, and that really is trying to improve its performance impact" [91] is the potential team. Higher up the Performance Team Curve in terms of both team and performance effectiveness, the potential team can be extremely effective when targeted at a problem or process for which a team approach makes sense. Unfortunately, in addition to the results attributable to individuals on the team, the increased performance brought about by the potential team is largely attributable to luck. Still lacking from potential teams are the commitment to a common purpose and working approach, as well as the mutual accountability inherent in real teams.
Finally, the high-p! erformance team "is a group that meets all the conditi! ons of real teams, and has members who are also deeply committed to one another's personal growth and success." [92] With a little reflection, any of us who has ever experienced working on a high-performance team knows it. We also quickly recognize how rare such opportunities have been. THE WISDOM OF TEAMS is a guidebook to creating a high-performance organization built around high-performance teams.
Teams must have the right blend of complementary skills, including technical or functional expertise, problem-solving and decision making skills, and interpersonal skills. "It is surprising how many people assemble teams primarily on the basis of personal compatibility or formal position in the organization." [48] The authors warn, however, that too much emphasis can be placed on skill mixes too early in the team process. In their research, they "did not meet a single team that had all the needed skills at the outset. (They) did discover, however, the power o! f teams as vehicles for personal learning and development." [48] As long as the right team dynamics are present, the necessary skills will materialize or develop.
The authors focus specific attention on the creation of teams at the top. "Team performance at the top of the organization is more the exception than the rule." [217] They cite several specific misguided beliefs that they find lead to lessened team effectiveness at the top: 1) the purpose of the team can't be differentiated from the purpose of the organization, 2) "membership in the team is automatic," [218] 3) the role of each team member is predefined by their functional position in the organizational hierarchy, 4) executives spending discretionary time on team activities is inefficient, and 5) the effectiveness of the team depends only on open communication. "This (last) all-too-common misconception equates teamwork with teams." [221]
These beliefs create obstacles to effecti! ve team performance. "The most practical path to build! ing a team at the top, then, lies not in wishing for good personal chemistry, but in finding ways for executives to do real work together." [230] Katzenbach and Smith are citing these problems particularly for the top, although they apply just as well to teams throughout the organization. Their prescription for breaking through these obstacles includes "carving out team assignments that tackle specific issues," "assigning work to subsets of the team, "determining team membership based on skill, not position," "requiring all members to do equivalent amounts of real work," "breaking down the hierarchical pattern of interaction," and "setting and following rules of behavior similar to those used by other teams." [230-234]
Katzenbach and Smith have provided a quick-injection standards program for teams. For quality professionals attempting to improve processes in their organization model, the authors have provided mater! ials at all three levels. Their definition of team - with its focus on complementary skills, mutual accountability, common approach, and shared goals - can be used as the basis for a Teams Policy Statement.
Making use of this book in our organizations will allow us to move beyond calling a group of people a team hoping it will motivate and inspire them. It allows us to move forward toward high-performance organizations with a process-based approach to continuously improving team effectiveness.
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on November 10, 2004

The Wisdom of Teams presents Katzenbach and Smith's contention that real teams are the best approach to building a high-performance organization. The authors blended together their highly detailed framework for team development with examples of how several corporations successfully or unsuccessfully implemented these team principles. While acknowledging that teams may not be the best solution for every organization's problems, the authors unashamedly insisted that businesses do themselves a disservice by not considering the team-based approach. The book's twelve chapters are organized into three parts: Understanding Teams, Becoming a Team, and Exploiting the Potential.


Part One, Understanding Teams, introduces the reader to the authors' thesis that teams present the best approach to creating a high-performance organization. Teams are defined as a "small group of people with complementary skills committed to a common purpose and set of specific performance goals" (21). Teams are not the same as work groups, committees, councils or task forces where the emphasis is on individual performance and accountability; that is, the sum of individual bests. Neither is every group that calls itself a team a true team. They may exhibit team-like characteristics or share team-like values, but those in and of themselves do not make a team. The distinguishing characteristic of teams is the synergistic effect created when individual accountability is exchange for mutual group accountability and shared group responsibility. Additionally, teams need to do real work in order be characterized as a real team. They must produce a specific work product that contributes to the organization's mission and success. However, achieving real team status is often difficult. In order to become successful, potential teams must overcome bureaucratic inertia, managerial biases, confusion about what makes a true team, negative past experiences with pseudo teams, fear of failure, and individual resistance to shared accountability. These embody a daunting array of factors to overcome, but the authors insisted that a top-level commitment to team-based solutions could lead to building a successful team.

In Part Two, Becoming a Team, the authors used their "team performance curve" to graphically illustrate the process necessary to create winning teams. A group does not become a team when initially formed. They may be a working group committed to better coordinating individual efforts toward individual goals benefiting the company, but they produce no joint work product. While this may be the best solution to a company's problem, the decision to become a team requires the conscious decision to assume the risk of mutual accountability and joint responsibility. If provided the right catalyst, a working group can transition to either a pseudo team or a potential team. The pseudo team fails to implement the basics of team building. They call themselves a team but are still focused on individual performance and not group results. Potential teams show an enhanced desire to formulate a group mission but have not adopted mutual accountability. They demonstrate improved team effectiveness, but their impact on the corporate problem is no greater than the working group. Real teams have a clearly defined mission for which they hold themselves mutually accountable and produce a joint work product. High performance teams are real teams that develop a deep personal commitment among the members of the team for one another's personal growth and wellbeing. These teams are both highly effective in their team effort and produce high quality results for the organization. However, to rise to that level, team members must make the critical choice to invest themselves in the team and its mission while overcoming obstacles that threaten to cause the team to regress to one of its lesser effective counterparts. Successful teams need quality leaders who help focus the group on the mission, endorse a team-based philosophy of shared accountability, and foster a climate of courage and success.

In Part Three, the authors forcefully championed their assertion that teams are the building blocks of successful organizations. Teams, they insisted, are the best organizational tool to deliver the results necessary to build customer loyalty, shareholder value, and employee satisfaction. Provided a company has a strong performance ethic and vision-driven leadership, teams can contribute the necessary skills, energy, and performance values that drive successful businesses. The ultimate decision to incorporate functional team rests with executive leadership and its willingness to transform bloated hierarchical structures, managerial parochialism, and individual-based incentives.

Review and Reaction:

Brevity and succinctness are not the strengths of this book. Once one is able to navigate the business techno babble, the mind numbing repetitiousness, and awkward sentence structures, the authors' point becomes clear: Teams are good for business. The genuine strength of the book is in the examples. The authors' ethereally academic presentation of team concepts finds a clearer voice in their reflections on how these concepts were applied in "real world" corporate environments. While not every example speaks with equal adequacy to its point, the reader can gain an understanding of what factors help build or break teams. Many of these factors, as the authors' asserted, are common sense.
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on January 24, 2006
While this book presents clear theories and structural understanding of teams, the case studies are not the greatest testament to their validity. It makes one wonder how much fluff is behind the principles. This "older" book uses case studies from organizations heralded in years past, but which have now proven to be the world's most corrupt organizations. My personal favorite: "Deal-to-Steel" (appropriately named) a case study of teams at Enron, which authors state is "an organization built on individual accountability." These case studies of high performing organizations make one question the credibility of the research. Furthermore, the authors' record of consulting to some of the most infamous companies known makes me wonder if you'd rather pick up a book about securing your future by Ken Lay, or sound accounting practices by Andy Fastow.

Now, the rest of the story... I did contact the publisher about the poor case studies when a group of students used the book for late night amusement and then heard presenters quote the pitiful examples before seas of laughing professionals. I thought the authors might wish to revamp case studies in future editions. The publisher agreed to contact the authors' representative. Months later, I received a complimentary copy of a new edition--same bad case studies, new cover and a higher price. Our company's bulk orders of the text immediately ceased. Good riddens-- it was dry reading anyway.
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on August 11, 1997
Wisdom of Team (WT) is a delightful book that balances both descriptive and prescriptive information about teams in organizations. This book DOES NOT fall prey to using sports analogies as the basis for examples and suggestions. Instead, the authors rely on examples from Fortune 500 companies and their own experiences.

As I read the examples in WT, I enjoyed reflecting on my own experiences on high performance teams. Based on my experiences, I found the authors' analysis insightful and accurate.

Several chapters include checklists that provide a quick summary of key learnings. These checklists make the book a valuable reference tool when creating, developing, and ending teams. Good read for managers at all levels of an organization.
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on June 20, 2009
Not to discount the insight, wisdom, and professional observations from these astute consultants, I am left wondering overall if they have not done a greater job of distorting truths rather than publishing them?? It appears that they discounted communication and cohesion under the pretense that these are "softer" components which do not accurately reflect important processes within teams? However, consulting several meta-analyses and research publications will reveal that these conclusions are far form the truth. Cohesion, which is the individual members attraction to the team, is meaningfully related to team performance, especially when the demands of the task necessitate greater levels of coordination, communication, and mutual performance monitoring among group members (Gulley, Devine,& Whitney, 1995). This concept is believed to be important because it aids in group formation, maintenance, and communication. Further, cohesion is though to facilitate group productivity because it permits less inhibited interactions, allows greater enforcement of working norms, and increases individual commitment to the group.

Communication is also an absolutely critical process to team functioning, and any book that discounts this notion clearly has no authority to discuss high-performing teams. For instance, according to Kozlowski & Bell (2003): "From our perspective, the central issue in team processes concern the synergistic combination of individual contributions to team effectiveness. Communication is a lens. Thus, research on communication type and frequency can be revealing of what team members are trying to coordinate, how much information they need, or how difficult it is to coordinate their activity" (pg. 354). That is, communication is a means for enabling the primary processes of coordination and cooperation. It allows team members to exchange task-related information (e.g., what stage are we at, what additional information do I need to accomplish my specific task, what is the best way to accomplish this sub-goal) and developing team solutions to problems (e.g., how can we better arrive at team decisions, how will conflict be managed and dealt with, how can we involve every team members unique background, how frequently will we collect information from external sources).

Furthermore, several of the recommendations from the authors have been available from the research domain for decades. For instance, to avoid the issue of social loafing (i.e., tendency for individuals to contribute less in a group setting), individual roles should be clearly defined and they should be held accountable for their individual performance by clearly linking their performance to team rewards and punishments. This principal has been well defined within the realms of social psychology, organizational behavior, and simple behaviorism for probably 40 years. A simple examination of work from Eduardo Salas, Steve Kozlowski, Donelson Forsyth, Daniel Devine, or Bradford Bell will reveal several more precise, practical, and evidence-based practices that provide more realistic complexities of generating high performing teams.

Unless you want to have some good case studies for storytelling and persuasive selling, save yourself some money and invest in writings from real experts who actually study teams and groups.
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on March 12, 2003
I am a Masters of Human Resource Management Student at Rutgers, and I felt that the book was very practical and could be used as a great reference guide, and I suppose that for what the book was written. However the writing was so commonplace, uneventful, and repetitive I found myself skipping paragraphs, furthermore, I felt that the case studies were not good examples of the points the book was trying to make.
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on January 17, 2013
I'm reading this book for a class, and from the very beginning I get the feeling that the authors are just saying what they are "supposed to say." It is very generic and even though it is not supposed to be an exciting read it is very hard to concentrate through the long stories.
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on June 7, 2015
The Wisdom of Teams, Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, from McKinsey & Co., was given to me by Marilyn Laurie, CCO of AT&T, in 1993, when I went onto the Board of the Arthur W. Page Society which she then chaired. Katzenbach had been with McKinsey more than 30 years then, he was a friend and consultant who helped big companies like AT&T and little PR entrepreneur guys like me understand what “high-performance organization” meant. Marilyn and the Page board, determined to put communication counsel at the top of such companies, locked onto the “teams” approach—an orientation that today is absolutely vital in enterprise leadership. (See now, two decades later, the brilliant Katzenbach-Smith practicality in Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, US Army, retired, and his team of co-authors.) For C-suite communicators, Wisdom of Teams definition that distinguishes an enterprise team from “employees” rings solidly true: “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.” If you’re driving with management toward delivering value to individuals, think team-work, starting at C-level, where you can serve as the connector among the enterprise's significantly accountable individuals.
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on June 27, 2012
This book is a bit frustrating for me. It has a lot of great themes and concepts regarding teamwork, but very few concrete examples or applications. It gets a little repetitive in how it addresses each topic. It was required reading for a class I took, but otherwise I would not ever buy/read it.
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on September 9, 2007
Jon Katzenbach and Dough Smith is probably the most classical work on teams at the moment. It's a pretty good description on what teams are and what you can do to create working teams. It also covers quite well the why of teams: why would you want to have teams in your organization.

The book is divided into three parts:
- Understanding teams
- Becoming a team
- Exploiting the potential

The first part is the most important part of the book. In the first chapter the authors describe why you would want to have teams in your organization. The second chapter goes on to describe one team in action. The authors use lots of stories of teams throughout the book to make their points clear. The third chapter describes six points which they call the basics of teams:
1) Small
2) Complementary skills
3) Shared purpose
4) Clear specific goals
5) Clear working approach
6) Sense of mutual accountability
In the fourth chapter, the authors give more examples.

The second part of the book introduces the team performance curve. The authors make the distinction between working groups and real teams. They consider that real teams perform higher, but its more difficult to achieve that. Between real teams and working groups they identifies the pseudo-teams, which have a performance below average, and the potential teams, which have a performance about equal to the working groups. Next to these, the author still recognize the high-performance teams, which are exceptional, but have a level of performance above all the others. Part two mainly continues explaining and clarifying this model.

The third part is called "exploiting the potential" and talks about higher management teams and about how to build your organization to support teams.

The book is easy readable and well structured. Some of the examples and stories are nice, though some of them do not go in too much detail. In general, I felt that the book could be thinner and some of the stories could be skipped. The authors used a little too much words, hence I'll rate the book 4 stars and not 5.

Still, when interested in teams, this book is certainly recommended.
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