May not be an irony for many but the word ‘Team’ has its origin in classical usage as, ‘a team of draught animals – a team of oxen pulling a cart or the plough or a team of horses pulling a carriage’ (Fig. 1). Industrialisation and urbanization has made us forget that and we think of only men and women or even individuals when we talk about teams; is that satirical? The satire grates further when you realise that there was always a ‘man’ who yoked the above team together, harnessed them to the cart or plough and then wielded a whip or offered a lump of sugar for the draught animals to perform the task – defined and owned by the man, not by the team!
Fig. 1: Team of Horses, Yoke and a Team of Oxen
A satire or an irony is about what exists in reality but not in line with the innocent expectations of the average. In today’s organisational context, a team is made of humans with one among them normally in charge as the Team Leader. It would be far worse than an irony for these humans if the team is still treated as draught animals in order to ensure delivery of the task at hand or fulfilment of the longer term purpose of the ‘man’ behind the team. I guess most of my readers may even find it blasphemous. I don’t say that the whip or the sugar does not motivate men any longer like draught animals, but one could look at the engagement challenge the other way round too. If men were expected to behave as draught animals, the whip or a lump of sugar could do wonders. Thankfully we all believe that is not how it should be, and no individual in today’s world looks at himself or others as draught animals – if only one pauses to think, reflect and use their knowledge armoury – but, is the belief equally practiced in real time?
Before we break into some real time discussion on Team and Leadership, the metaphorical value from the first paragraph and the Fig. 1 could be interesting to hold in our minds. While it is a no-brainer that a change in approach is required when putting together and leading a team of human beings instead of horses or oxen, the Yoke and the Cart/Plough appears quite meaningful in its metaphorical application. The Task at hand could be thought of as the Cart or Plough that needs to be pulled for some distance. However, a team is not put together for performing one simple or complicated task at hand. Even the repeated iteration of the same task is but one part of many tasks or many different types of tasks that the team needs to apply itself to. The team is there to stay for some larger reason to be fulfilled over a longer period of time. And that is the Purpose of the Team to be there, to be fulfilled and be made secure at all costs.
The Purpose for the team could be likened to the Yoke that holds the team together. Without the yoke straddling each part of the team it would not be possible to function as a team. Hence, the team leader’s primary responsibility is to remind himself and his team members of the yoke of purpose. Once a team member feels separated from the purpose, the team is destroyed and the purpose can never be fulfilled.
Well, let us leave the ironies, satires and metaphors behind and get down to what makes teams tick in today’s organisations. Interestingly, a lot of what made sense earlier still holds good:
- A Team is made of people who are aligned in one direction by virtue of the Team purpose.
- A Team is harnessed by the task(s) that can be accomplished by the team alone.
- Team members have the skills and expertise to perform their individual tasks or the experience to handle their domains.
- The Team has a team leader who is possessed of the purpose and ensures that each member of the team works in alignment to the purpose (not necessarily using a whip or sugar always).
However, somethings may not hold good anymore owing to changes in the overall context where teams have to function today. Individuals and Teams work today with much higher levels of interdependence than ever. While the need for correct and timely completion of tasks remains a constant, the purpose that the teams and individuals contribute towards has become more distant and complex than ever in the past. Let us look at what may have changed when we think of teams and team leadership in today’s times:
- Team members look for higher needs fulfillment from their work life – job satisfaction, challenges, growth opportunities, self – actualisation, creativity – and not basic needs like food, shelter and security.
- The Team leader cannot threaten the basic need fulfillment of team members – they do not have to ‘fear’ the leader anymore; period!
- The Team leader cannot fire a team member that easily anymore due to the expertise that an individual develops over time, legal restrictions or protection, mixed line of control or cultural norms.
- Team members have alternative enterprises to find work in. There is competition for knowledge and expertise in almost any industry for most roles individuals are engaged in.
- The Team leader also has aspirations that the current role may not help to fulfil and may look at other organisations to attain actualisation.
- Team KPIs are less about individual efforts and skills and are more dependent upon processes and motivation.
- Team KPIs are not anymore just about team efficiency and costs. They have immediate impact on the competitive advantage of the enterprise.
Hence, the Team of today is less about Fig. 1 and more about Fig. 2.
Fig. 2 – Team of today
Successful Teams of today are not just dependent upon the skills and expertise of the team members but much more upon the volitional engagement of the team members. Self-motivated teams are engaged more by the purpose than the task at hand. They understand that true organisational value is created through seamless interdependence rather than mere individual excellence. Such a team does not morph in place by chance but through mature leadership and proper management by the team leader. Unfortunately, maturity has not much to do with the skills and domain knowledge of the team leader or Manager. Proper management wells from being possessed with the organisational purpose and long term value creation. Today, leadership has less to do with the scientific approach of managing in-animate resources and more about influencing animate resources – the team members. It is about human motivation and volitional buoys. While the scientific approach of Frederick W. Taylor (circa 1910) lives more and more in the processes, tools, systems and machines, it is Leadership that steers the management of teams, divisions, organisations and society.
It is Leadership that makes performance beyond expectations, a reality!