Why Teams Fail: A Higher Altitude View
By Donald Schmincke
“I don’t know what
else to do,” said the HR manager of a large manufacturing company.
“We’ve just completed another team-building program to help get rid
of the silo mentality and selfish politics around here but nothing
seems to last.”
“Did you know that
the failure rate data on these types of training programs range from
70 to 100% depending on the study?” I said.
She fell back in her
chair. “They failed to mention that when they sold me the program.”
She felt like she had been duped.
team-building programs frustrate HR executives when they fall short
of their promises. But why do some teams perform while others
flounder even with the same training methods?
We found clues
during our research of teams in the death zone; that altitude above
26,000 feet which makes long-term survival impossible because of the
lack of oxygen. Climbing teams bear a resemblance to corporate
teams. Some live passionately to achieve challenging missions,
others behave like dysfunctional committees. They both come with all
levels of implementations from naïve textbook copycats to deep
accountability-driven groups. And when put to the test, climbing
teams and corporate teams react similarly: sometimes rising to the
occasion, other times running for cover.
Expeditions to the
world’s highest mountains provide the perfect laboratories to
examine the challenges every team faces. At these extreme altitudes
success or failure is easily measured, and simple mistakes kill team
members. Here, we expected to find new principals that separate the
great teams from the not so great, but we found something else.
Teams who produce peak performance in the face of extreme challenges
– what we call high altitude teams –are remarkably different. Rather
than being seduced by the latest teamwork platitudes, clichés or
feel-good theories, they instead succeed by recognizing and
surviving specific dangers; dangers that always emerge when a team
moves to higher levels of performance. New theories don’t make these
teams great, but overcoming these dangers does. In the most extreme
situations, on the battlefield or in the mountains, losing to these
dangers results in death.
learned a lot about these dangers when leading groups that have to
perform at the peak of their ability in the most extreme
circumstances. It’s no surprise that we find the same dangers when
we help corporations develop their teams. Specifically, we find that
four dangers specifically haunt high-altitude teams: Selfishness,
Tools Seduction, Cowardice, and Lone Heroism.
altitude, selfishness kills people when teamwork is critically
needed to deal with injuries, equipment malfunction, limited
resources, and threats of avalanche and weather. In corporate teams,
selfishness kills performance and projects. First, it infects a team
when one or more of its members:
Let their career
or personal agendas supersede the team’s mission.
Think that being
right is more important than collaboration and dialogue.
credit for team achievements, while blaming the team for its
Are unwilling to
compromise or seek consensus during conflict.
Then the damage
escalates as fifteen-minute meetings start taking an hour, projects
take twice as long as necessary, members say something outside the
team meeting that should’ve been said in the meeting, or talk about
someone instead of challenging them directly.
What seems like
innocent office politics brings down the best of teams. Postmortem
business case-studies blame the failures on reasons like strategic
missteps or poor implementations of good ideas. But digging deeper
among the carcasses we find that selfishness alone drove the denial,
avoidance, blindness, or cover-ups until it was too late.
High Altitude teams,
on the other hand, are driven by a fervor and zeal for achieving the
team’s results – what we call a compelling saga (from the ancient
Norse term) – and this inspires passion greater than selfish ego’s
agenda. Is your team driven by a passionate saga, or just empty
words in a mission statement?
mountaineering, tool seduction endangers climbers every time they
dress in the latest gear but apply the wrong techniques and
behaviors to the challenge. In their overconfidence (or naiveté)
they end up lost on a storm-ravaged slope for days while experienced
climbers are at base camp having a beer and watching the weather.
Similarly, the danger from a parade of experts packing the latest
tools for organizational change, leadership development, process
improvement, teambuilding and other management methods bog down
progress and distract teams from focusing on the vital issues.
But tools are
Yes. Tools offer
hope. Tools make people feel like they have the right answer. Who
dares argue with the ideas from a best-selling business book? But
the results aren’t pretty when you get seduced by the buzzwords and
cool concepts. Teams fail when tools become crutches for “safe”
answers, or worse, weapons to use against each other. And in
critical moments, even the best tools break or fail, resources are
lost, or circumstances change. So, the problem isn’t with the tools,
but how teams relate to them.
Is the team using
the tools, or are the tools using the team? Industry feels the costs
and risks of tool seduction every day:
“Our team had
all the measurement charts on the wall that they trained us to
have but we couldn’t figure out what we needed to do
“Why did our R&D
team have to take a TQM class? I mean how are we supposed to
measure the quality of creativity and breakthrough? The classes
were a distraction. It was ridiculous.”
“Why did we have
to waste so much time on Six Sigma? I mean we were only making
bottle caps. They worked great at Three Sigma!”
“Our team still
hasn’t recovered from the cultural damage of our latest
High Altitude teams
only use tools that drive team success, and don’t get distracted by
industry fashion trends. They know that tool seduction can suck
productivity and morale out of a team so they adapt the tools and
focus on behavior – the actions and decisions made – which truly
drives high performance results. Do your team’s tools allow it to
act decisively, or just clog your shelves with interesting, but
irrelevant, information? Do these tools fuel team passion for the
challenge ahead, or derail production with useless meetings, lingo,
dangerously stops both mountaineering and corporate teams from
challenging the status quo, holding each other accountable, and
exposing weaknesses. This danger happens as soon as team members are
too afraid to confront violations of accountability, take necessary
risks, or maintain team principles and values during times of
trouble. And it causes team failures by stopping the essential act
needed for effective execution…tell the truth.
Lack of truth eats
team performance. Initially telling the truth can upset people and
cause discomfort, but good teams love it and it drives
accountability to new levels. The alternative of keeping the truth
at unspeakable levels only produces collateral damage which can
include accumulating dead-weight from marginal team members and
sticking with doomed projects are too long. High altitude teams
develop bravery which allows them to achieve the accountability,
risk-taking, commitment, and truthful communication necessary for
achieving their goals.
Rather than reveal
the truth about a situation does your team choose avoidance, denial,
and silence in order to avert possible discomfort, anger,
retribution, and other unpleasantness? Do team members hide or only
whisper about the uncomfortable team issues?
danger of a selfish, glory-seeking lone-hero breaks a team as they
step on other team members without even removing their crampons.
Lone heroism contributes to higher operating costs, lower
innovation, increased risks, delayed execution, higher turnover, and
missed sales opportunities. The lone hero’s journey makes for
compelling literature, but in real-life human experience dating back
to the earliest prehistoric times, it typically equates with failure
and death. High altitude leaders choose a different path:
partnership – engaging and leveraging others to help them. Imagine
how much more productive teams would be if lone heroes spent less
time proving their superiority and more time producing results.
Lone-hero damage can be extensive:
as everyone thinks they’re the only one able to contribute
accountability from lone-heroes avoiding accountability or
usurping it from others by doing their jobs. In an
accountability vacuum everyone wonders why nothing is getting
direction by putting personal agendas ahead of team’s goals.
No one wants to work with someone to just make that person look
there someone the company thinks it’s can’t live without?
happening in your team? Who is trying to do it all? Who thinks it’s
a sign of weakness to ask for help? Or, worse, who thinks he or she
is the only one who can do something right?
Viewing team failures from a higher altitude lets us see the hidden
dangers which derail most well-intended team building methods. Which
dangers most threaten your team?
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