Why Teams Fail, Opportunities for Improvement

Patrick Lencioni’s best-selling “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable,” explains how absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results kill success. These are big in team effectiveness, but there are many other factors in why teams fail. Lack of definition,lack of leadership, and lack of planning are three areas that directly impact team outcomes.

Lack of Definition

In “The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization,” Jon Katzenbach defines a team as “a small group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” Teams fail when there is a lack of specific definition of the team, the team’s goals, and individual roles. A team has a hard time committing when goals aren’t clear and when team members are unsure of their role on the team.

This is why a team charter is so important to team success. A charter outlines what the team is and what it will do. The seven parts of a team charter are context, mission and objectives, composition and roles, authority and boundaries, resources and support, operations, and negotiation and agreement. These sections formulate a framework for defining how the team will work together and what success will look like. Without it a team won’t operate as effectively as if they have the road map that the charter provides.

Lack of Leadership

Katzenbach explains that team leadership is critical to team success. Team leaders need to put team performance first and recognize that they need everyone on the team. He describes successful team leaders as those who “clarify purpose and goals, build commitment, strengthen the team’s collective skills and approach, remove externally imposed obstacles, and create opportunities for others.” A leader who is focused on personal achievement over team achievement, or feels like they have to call all the shots, is a contributing factor to why teams fail.

Connecting with team members rather than “managing” or “directing” them is a point that George Brandt and Gillian Davis make in “First-Time Leader: Foundational Tools for Inspiring and Enabling Your New Team.” They explain that leading is different than managing, and relationships are at the heart of leadership, so connecting is integral to leading. They advocate listening to the team, encouraging open lines of communication, and working with them to connect, rather than sending them off to do the work and report back.

Lack of Planning

Brandt and Davis discuss strategic planning for teams as including mission, vision, values, and SWOT, and also a detailed business plan plus a way to measure and adjust along the way to achieving goals. Clarifying strategy, or planning, is something to do as a team, rather than something a leader does for a team. Together work out what the team’s mission and vision is and put it in writing. Look at timelines, obstacles and challenges, and resources and limitations for the team’s tasks and activities.

Teams that are put together hastily, without a leader or with a weak leader, and that have no planning or strategy, are a recipe for difficulty or failure. To even get to the five areas Lencioni describes as dysfunctional, teams need to understand why they have formed, and have leaders and strategies to get started. There are many reasons why business teams fail, but those can be overcome with strong leadership on teams that are well defined and know how to plan and implement well


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