Why Teams Fail (and What’s a Body to Do?)

A prospective client once asked, “Can you come and do teams to us?” Wrong question. Besides the fact that no one can—or should—“do teams to” any organization, the question misses the point: how (and even whether) to design and implement the right kinds of workplace teams to fit an organization.

It doesn’t help that there is a bewildering blizzard of information about teams in the workplace. How can something we consider so apple pie and American—teamwork—be all that difficult? If teamwork is so easy, why do so many at-tempts to bring it into the workplace fail? What are the roots of its failure in so many organizations?

Roots of Failure

First, workplace teams are counter-cultural and un-American. Cooperation is their underlying foundation; but our culture–especially our work culture –mediates against cooperation.

Historically, our roots are sunk in an agrarian economy, which required cooperation for survival. But the industrial economy of the last hundred years has encouraged the opposite. It feeds on harnessing, controlling and rewarding individual effort.

The common perception is no accident: I have my job, and I am rewarded for my efforts. Until recently, the basic work contract has always been the exchange of individual labor and time for pay.

Our economic engine runs on the ability to focus this individual effort and aim it at filling individual needs continually created and reinforced. The result is our consumer economy.

Think about this: Why do seven people in the same cul-de-sac need seven different lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, or extension ladders? Individual acquisition and consumption fire the engine of our economy.

The “need” for more mowers, trimmers and ladders keeps the engine running. Personally, I have all these tools because I want to have them when I want to have them. Happily enough for the makers of all those products (and a zillion more!), I’ve learned to prize the flexibility and freedom of use.

Sure, I could work as a team with all my neighbors, and probably save lots of money. We could set up a “tool use schedule,” and even do some problem-solving to make sure we all get our home maintenance work done. But it’s this talking, scheduling, and balancing of needs that’s so uncomfortable because it restricts my freedom.

A friend recently proposed to neighbors that they negotiate together for house-painting. He figured jointly bargaining with the painter would be to everyone’s advantage. His neighbors refused. All three went their separate house-painting ways.

We have learned well to continue our separate paths, even when it is not in our own best interest. Teams in the workplace run counter to our American economic culture because they clash with its underpinnings: individual effort and reward, and individual freedom of action.

In another way, teams are also un-American. Consider some of the common American Mythic Heroes and Heroines: Daniel Boone, Calamity Jane, Paul Bunyon, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison: all loners, all rugged individualists. Teamwork clashes with The Myth.

A quick look at our popular history reveals successive waves of oddball individuals continually moving west, pushing the frontier. The restless and rugged moved outward and onward. Always, the group-oriented people—the “settlers”—stayed put.

It’s the Lone Ranger and his silver bullet we admire, not The Committee to Save the Streets of Laredo. Sports clichés aside, teamwork is un-American. Teams, which require steady cooperative effort, clash with a popular American culture that reveres, by myth and practice, the rugged individualist.

Second, teams are misused, confused and abused in the organizations where they are attempted. They are started for the wrong reasons, done poorly and supported inadequately. We foist them on people as a panacea, and often use them to cover a multitude of sins we refuse to address. Let me cite a few examples, drawn from ample observation and experience.

Ensuring Failure

Here are ten sure-fire ways to ruin workplace teams. Warning: Kids, do not try these at home. What you see below is being done daily by reputedly trained and highly-skilled professionals:

1. Do it down there. One of my favorite cartoons shows a worker standing, hat in hand, wide-eyed, in front of the boss’s desk. The boss is loudly explaining, “Worker participation is on Monday and Wednesday, you ignorant twit! To-day is Tuesday!”

If you’re in charge, make sure you define who teams are for (and how often, where and when they meet). And for goodness sake, don’t include yourself. People will soon catch on that teamwork is for Monday, and only for those “down there” in the company–something the top tells the middle to do to the bottom.

In one manufacturing organization, the Engineering and Manufacturing VP’s simply ignored each other. How did that play out at the plant level? Over time, the manufacturing employees were not allowed access to the blueprints they needed to make the product.

In this case, what filtered down through the stove-pipes was the animosity rooted at the top. So, make sure you don’t do any of that team stuff at the top; it’s something you put in at the bottom.

2. Call it something spiffy. Several years ago, at a foundry, management unilaterally started a “team program.” The management leadership sought help because “World Class Teamwork” hadn’t caught on as expected with the workforce.

I saw the first indicator of a potential problem while talking with employees: seven of the first dozen people I met wore T-shirts that read: “World Class My ___.”

When you start your team effort, call it something spiffy. There must be hundreds of so-called “High-performance High-commitment Full Participation Work Systems” out there struggling vainly to be any one of the three. Give yours a name or an acronym too. That way your team effort will surely become a “program.”

And as soon as you have a program called, “World Class High Performance Excellence Work Team Process,” people can say “Oh, here’s the new program this month,” put it in its proper slot on the shelf alongside last year’s binder, and get on with working.

3. Make it very complicated. Set up a teamwork bureaucracy, and invent a special language for teams to speak. Many companies in the early ‘80’s defined rigid and specific “parallel structures” to support shop-floor participation teams. They required steering committees at the top, area sub-steering committees, support committees, coordinators and facilitators. Sometimes, creative local leaders could adapt the structure to make it work for them; but in too many cases, the workplace teams were stifled by as tangled a bureaucracy as they were meant to improve.

We were once asked to assess the progress in a corporation that had been working for 4 years to create a “multi-level team-based employee involvement culture” (their spiffy name).

A previous consultant had established this unusual premise: you have to change people’s language to change their thinking; once you change their thinking, you can change the way they work.

Interesting theory, but the practical result was obvious: inertia rooted in confusion. They needed a lexicon of terms just so people could talk with each other.

In several small paper mills, they had (I am not making this up): “customer-focused value-added core process stream resources.”

Do you know what that is? People doing work to make toilet paper.

Another site of fewer than 400 people included:

Asset teams, Strategic Teams, Resource Interface Teams, Internal Boundary Management Teams, Linking Teams and Renewal Teams.

Presumably these all once made sense to somebody; but, unfortunately, not to most of the people eager to do good work together. Mostly, these people just wanted to figure out how to work better together to keep their customers happy and their paper mill open. Making it complicated helped their teams fail.

4. Make teams the magic green pill. In our quest to cure what ails us, we hop from one fad to the next, looking for the magic green pill. And work teams are a seductive prescription for curing fundamental business ills: they’re attractive and easy to take.

One company had put no effort, for years, into up-grading their sales or improving their products. At one point, they had no business on the books for the rest of the year. Yet they insisted on starting shop floor problem-solving teams, as though that alone would fix their business.

Teams are no antidote for lousy product design, poor capital investment, or a non-existent marketing strategy. You can pretend they are if you want them to fail.

5. Sprinkle “teamish” dust on people. Start teams, put people in groups, wave the teamwork banner and yell, “Go do some of that teamish stuff.”

More than once managers have asked us to help fix a problem they created themselves with an announcement on Friday, “As of Monday, there will be no Supervisors on the second and third shifts.”

Poof! Go be teamish. It takes only a week or two before someone says, “Uh, this maybe wasn’t such a great idea. We have a slight problem with chaos…”

Too many leaders, some-times with the best of intentions, think they can start workplace teams, charge them with resolving complex issues, and set them loose unaided.

The teams’ training consists of an hour’s pep talk and a few consensus exercises, and they are expected to perform magically at a higher level. Use “teamish” dust like that to snuff out success.

6. Assume one size team fits all. We know there are three basic kinds of workplace teams, different in their makeup, their charter, and their intended outcomes.

A “Natural Work Team” at one factory consisted of three volunteers, out of nineteen department members, who purported to “self-manage” the affairs of the whole department. They couldn’t understand why the others wouldn’t do what they had decided.

A temporary problem-solving team is not the same as a specific, cross-functional task team; and neither is the same as an intact, continuing work team. But don’t worry about that.

Just assume that all teams are the same, or that all situations call for the same kind of team, and you’ll assure failure. Create only one size hammer, and everything will look like the same size nail.

7. Plant teams firmly in a vacuum. Do nothing to create support systems for the teams you put into place. Make them isolated actors within the wider organization, like the people mentioned earlier who couldn’t even get blueprints to see how to make their products.

An insurance company created “Customer-focused Teams” with great fanfare. They neglected to provide the information system to give the teams the data necessary to handle customer inquiries.

In another instance, a nine-month project unraveled when corporate leadership refused to consider pay system changes that would have rewarded productivity improvement and reinforced teamwork–changes recommended by the teams they themselves had created. Providing no support systems and structures is a great way to hang your teams out to dry.

8. Create a weird parallel universe. Some years ago, the manager of a paper mill felt their employee involvement strategy had “topped out,” and wanted some help to move forward.

Comments from employees at all levels, especially the managers, could be summarized like this: “We really like this Employee Involvement stuff. It’s terrific, but it takes so much time, and we have work to do!”

What’s wrong with that picture? The work teams, so enthusiastically supported, existed in a kind of weird “Employee Involvement Universe” over here, parallel with the real world of work over there. There was little connection between the two, with no apparent relationship between teams and real decision-making or problem-solving.

If you’re in charge, create such a universe as a dumping ground for problems you’d prefer to ignore yourself. “Discipline problems? Give ‘em to the team to handle. ‘Got product design problems, let the teams figure out how to bang things together.”

While you’re at it, build consensus-mania into your weird parallel universe: make sure everyone thinks everybody should be involved in everything so that nothing gets done about anything.

9. Expect nothing real from the teams you put in place. Give them no outcomes to meet; make sure they have no charter so it’s unclear what they’re expected to do. See to it that they have no performance expectations.

One company had what they thought were successful work teams But their overtime rate–controlled by the teams–had risen 210%.

That just might indicate a problem someone should confront with these groups. In this organization, however, teams had become a way to abdicate the responsibility for confronting hard issues.

Expect nothing, and you can develop a culture of non-responsibility. Where nothing is expected, nothing happens.

10. Pull up the flower frequently. If you’re in a leadership position, plant a team; then come along every five minutes and rip it up by the roots to see if it’s growing yet. As soon as they’ve started, pepper them with proper managerial questions like, “Are you a team yet? ‘Got any results yet? Are you finished yet?”

Allow no time for the team to develop, give no room for error, provide no encouragement, demand immediate results, and you’ll make sure the whole thing dies on the vine.

What’s a Body to Do?

Let me follow this catastrophic litany with a positive premise: teams are simple. Once again, for emphasis: Implementing workplace teams is simple–but not necessarily easy. (The two are clearly not the same.)

First, the simple part: Teams are all about involving the optimum number of people at all levels in the organization in planning, problem-solving, goal-setting, and decision-making–and giving them the tools and resources they need to do that.

That’s the gist of it all: involving the right people, in the right ways, on the right things, with the right support—to get real work done better.

Workplace teams are neither social experiment nor “soft” management tool. They are hard work, and highly effective when done well. That’s the “not easy” part that requires avoiding the traps described above. What’s a body to do about those?

Figure out “why” and tell people. You are asking people to do something counter-cultural and un-American. They will ask why in the world they should bother. “Because teamwork is nice” is not a sufficient answer.

Workplace teams are a means, not an end; we confuse these miserably. Teams are a means to do something better, quicker, safer, cheaper, cleaner.

Figuring that out, in hard-nosed fashion, is your first job as the leader. Then tell people in specific and concrete terms. “To beat the competition” tells people little. “To reduce our product design cycle by 80% so we can get new products to the market faster” spotlights “why.”

Answer “WIIFM?” We like to think people see the “obvious” connection between the success of the organization and their own success. They don’t, often because we’ve consistently trained them to see those as competing interests. For teams to succeed, their members must understand “What’s In It For Me?” It is not “selfish” of people to want the question answered.

Faint wishes and happy talk don’t answer the question. Teams are hard work, meant to foster, not avoid, the healthy conflict of people and ideas. If we expect people to commit to this way of working, we must help them understand what they’ll get from it–again, in concrete and personal terms.

“A better work environment” isn’t nearly as clear as “New skills that will make you more valuable” or, even clearer, “An 8% share of any documented productivity gains implemented.” Don’t hold out “Survival of the company“ or “Job security” if they are neither true nor possible.

Describe the links, early and often, between the success of the team, the success of the enterprise, and the success of the individual.

Learn about teams. You wouldn’t invest in capital equipment without first finding out how it works and what it will (or won’t) do for you. Yet we’ve known managers who seem to think their experience on a high school football team equipped them to implement “Natural Work Teams” in a global manufacturing firm.

Learn before you leap. Visit other companies, read, send people to conferences. Bring in experienced outside resources to find out about the various types of work teams, how they function, what to do and avoid for success.

If you think this learning is too expensive, wait until you’ve tried ignorance. It may be bliss somewhere else, but not when it comes to changing your organization.

Develop your vision and strategy. This is not a mystical leap or a list of pious principles to hang on a plaque in the lobby. Create your specific picture of what you want to have in place when you’re successful.

Get people in a room and help them define HWIKIWISI?–How Will I Know It When I See It? Ask: What will “teams” look like here? What will people be doing or saying that’s different in any way from today? Shop the resulting description around. Inviting people to read it, talk about it, chew on it, and add to it will build understanding and ownership.

Then ask the simple question, “What has to happen for us to get there?” That’s the start of a coherent strategy for implementation. Remember, you can’t do it to people down there and expect to succeed.

Explore readiness. Take a careful look at where to start. Harvard’s Michael Beer makes a strongly supported case that real organization change does not happen from the top down. It happens in operating units, usually from the middle out. It happens where people are clearly involved in attacking significant business issues.

Take time to explore carefully the readiness for change in your company before launching employee teams. In the words of a colleague, “Pick a few friends, light a few fires..” where you’re most likely to taste success.

Pick the right kind(s). Choose the right team structure to fit your needs. Temporary, volunteer problem-solving teams of an hour a week are a distinctly different animal from “self-managed work teams.” The latter can take as long as two years to implement fully.

Each has a different purpose, and requires different approaches to selection, training, and support. Choose thoughtfully, after you’ve learned the difference.

It’s the plan, stupid. You can’t implement workplace teams in an ad hoc fashion. Yet leaders who wouldn’t dream of installing a new computer system without a detailed transition plan will court disaster by implementing workplace teams by the seat of their pants.

It may seem obvious, but so many people miss a basic point: It’s all about managing organization change. It means putting in place a plan for when this will happen, where you’ll begin, the results you expect, and who will do what by when.

Focus on real work. Effective work teams, by definition, get high quality results with high levels of engagement and satisfaction for their members. They do good work and they feel good. If either element is missing, a team in not effective.

Teams frequently place too much attention on the satisfaction and not the accomplishment. They wither because they’re not getting anything done. If you are marshaling the time and talent of creative people, don’t do it lightly. Point them at what’s important.

Engage them in significant issues that matter to the life of the enterprise. The complaint from too many work teams is that they’re a waste of time. They don’t provide the chance for people to make a real difference in the central work of the organization. When people sense that you’re merely allowing them to rearrange the deck chairs rather than help steer the ship, they quickly lose interest.

Develop skills, more skills, and other skills. People are accustomed to working as Lone Ranger’s in the workplace. Put into a team environment, most lack the skills they need to work effectively with others.

The ability to talk and listen, make decisions, and solve problems in a team requires training. Teams will (and should) expect much more information from the organization, and must learn to interpret and use it. If you expect teams, in fact, to manage them-selves, then expect to provide the tools that will allow them to do so.

Supporting teams with the technical and interpersonal skills, and the business literacy they need for success can mean an investment of 10-20% of their time.

Involve team members in determining their skill needs, and in deciding how they can best be met from within and outside the team.

Expect transition time

Teamwork takes time, especially in the beginning. Allowing teams to develop to maturity in today’s fast-paced environment can try the patience of Job; but hurrying that development and expecting miracles too soon will only short-circuit their effectiveness.

Remember, the point of teams in the workplace is the optimum involvement of people at all levels in goal-setting, planning, problem-solving and decision-making to get things done better. If it took years–or even decades–for your organization to reach its current state, how can you expect a new employee team to make a difference in a day?

Each team will move through a predictable pat-tern of development from formation to maturity. (A new group of people can take 18-24 months to become an effective “self-managed team.”) Set high expectations, provide the help and support necessary, then get out of the way. Allow enough time for groups to become teams, make a few mistakes and get the work done.


Implementing teams in the workplace is a simple, but not easy task. You can struggle against an American work culture that is essentially resistant to team-work (banners and slogans notwithstanding). There are common, all-too-obvious pitfalls to avoid.

The prospect of people doing their best work together, and enjoying it in the bargain, makes it all worth it. No, you can’t “do teams to” people; but with them you can create effective workplace teams well worth the effort.

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