Skip to content

Don’t Focus on People, Focus on Building a Winning Team

Summary

  • Shift from individual achievement to teamwork: Success in today’s complex world relies on teams achieving goals, not individuals.
  • Specialisation drives teamwork: As knowledge grows in fields like healthcare, individual specialists need to collaborate for effective results.
  • Teamwork leads to better outcomes: The 4x100m relay is an example of how teamwork surpasses individual achievements.
  • Trust in information is crucial: Teams built on trust in information sharing can make better decisions, like seamless baton passing in a relay.
  • Specialists and information: Specialists rely on information to make decisions and solve problems.
  • Managers in the knowledge work era: Managers must lead and engage teams, not define how tasks are done.
  • Building winning teams is key: A manager’s primary objective is to build a high-performing team to achieve collective results.

Very few people work by themselves and achieve results by themselves. History has provided a few great artists and a handful of scientists. Of course some great athletes too; the 400 metres world record for example is 43.03 seconds set in 2016. But most people work with other people and are most effective through other people. And despite most people’s strong desire for independence, I believe that everything significant that you want to achieve in the future through your business will be achieved by teams. I believe this because as the world grows more complex it is teams that are the great achievers and winners. Effective teams get more done in less time with less cost and they are more fulfilled. The simple measure of an effective team is that it accomplishes the results it sets out to achieve. In fact team work is a sustainable competitive advantage and time and again it is small teams that innovate, create change and usurp incumbent giants.

The world and the work we do is becoming more complex and as a result the individual is increasingly becoming a specialist. Think of healthcare as an example. A few hundred years ago you had a doctor. Just one, a male and he was your physician if you were lucky enough to afford him. Yet relatively little was understood about the human body. During the early 1900s as science advanced so too did the work of doctors who shifted to working together interdependently in hospitals. Today an incredible amount is known about the body and disease, with an average 150 random controlled trials (the gold standard for research) published each and every day, a huge amount of information. But what I’d like you to consider is the astounding array of specialisms in healthcare. We now have super-specialisation where doctors increasingly focus on managing a single organ or bone. This trend is growing everywhere; expanding complexity due to more information leading to super-specialisation. This combination makes teamwork even more critical. In the case of healthcare it requires multiple doctors to provide holistic care. Outside of healthcare teamwork is necessary now more than ever. Critically, teams are often not static (for example based on department or continual business function) but freeforming according to imperative outcomes that begin and end on a per-project basis.

Allow me to draw your attention to an elegant example. Knowing that the 400 metres can be run in 43.03 by a single person, how fast do you suppose it can be run by a team? Bearing in mind that the 4x 100 metres relay involves not only running but coordinating the passing of a baton. The world record is an astounding 36.84 seconds set at the London Olympics in 2012 by the Jamaican running team. That is 14% faster than the 43.03 seconds set by Wayde Van Niekerk of South Africa for the 400 metre sprint at the Rio Olympics in 2016. This is the power of teamwork.

Organisations are rapidly changing and the 21st century organisation is nothing like that of the 20th century, although unfortunately some paradigms are stubborn to shift. Particularly relevant to teams is that organisations are no longer built on force. They are increasingly built on trust. Trust does not mean that people like one another. It means that people can trust one another’s information. In a world of specialists if one person can trust another’s information they can take it as an input and immediately build upon it trusting that its foundations are solid. The seamless passing of the baton in the 4x 100 metres relay is a perfect metaphor for this trust in information. So too is the way in which health care professionals must cooperate to provide patient care. Without that trust the chain is broken; either you go without the important information, or you must go to the source data and interpret it yourself. This scenario costs not only time and productivity but also accuracy of interpretation, for it is likely that the runaround is not being done by the appropriate specialist thus the interpretation will be slower and weaker. This is why teams are more effective across multiple measures of productivity, importantly including decision making which relies heavily on quality of information for effectiveness. 

The other major shift from the 20th to the 21st century has been in the concentration of manual work. Again we are stubborn to release the paradigms associated with this. Management achieved stunning advances in the productivity of manual work during the 20th century; a 50-fold improvement no less. The most important contribution of management in the 21st century will be to similarly increase the productivity of the specialist or “knowledge worker”. It is upon you if you are a manager to repeat this great feat of productivity growth.  Productivity growth across the G7 has been slowing sharply since the mid 1970s, a trend that entrepreneurs and especially managers must address urgently in this century as we face shrinking populations in developed countries.

What is a knowledge worker? The term was coined in 1959 by business consultant Peter Drucker and the term has come to be pertinent in describing the shift from manual work to “knowledge work”. I find it easier to think of the knowledge worker as the “specialist” for a few reasons. First it is not simply that a knowledge worker works primarily with their heads rather than their hands, or that their tool is knowledge rather than a mechanical tool. I am certain that the tools which will multiply productivity in the future will not be found inside one’s head, they will almost certainly be new technologies. Quite simply, the specialist works with information. It is information that enables specialists to do their job. 

To be explicit information is not data. Data is raw and unorganised facts and figures, information is organised, interpreted and offers context and meaning. The world has infinitely more data than information. Information is transformed into knowledge based on what specialists understand and confirm from information. A specialist can then use knowledge to make decisions or solve problems. Finally when you codify knowledge you form processes. Data, information, knowledge and processes. 

In manual work of the previous century people were deployed to repeat proven processes without the need for much information. In knowledge work, the specialist has a great amount of information, is able to generate new information from data and must know more about their job than their boss does – or else they are not a specialist. But the paradigm shift we must make in shifting from manual to knowledge work is in understanding the role of the manager in defining what the work is and how it should best be done. 

In manual work the task is typically obvious and repetitive. During the 20th century management relentlessly improved on how the work could be done. This is how the 50 fold increase in productivity was attained, through better processes. In knowledge work however things could not be more different. Often the task is unclear and ever changing, so must therefore be defined all while the field of information is expanding exponentially. That task definition is best done by the specialist not the manager and frequently it is best defined not by an individual but rather by teams. It follows that how the task should be done is also down to either the specialist or teams too. Thus managers must not only make spectacular improvements to productivity this century, they must do so without defining the work or how it should be done! This shift in management’s responsibility doesn’t detract from their importance, I believe it expands it. But the shift is counterintuitive and perhaps painful which goes some way to explain both why productivity growth is low and why the paradigm shift is dragging its heels as we learn new skills and let go of old ones.

The work that befalls a manager is thus to lead and engage your people. Because one does not “manage” people. The task is to lead people. As Stephen M. R. Covey has said, “Manage things, lead people”. And the objective is to develop and harness the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual to produce collective results. Team results. Your job if you are a manager is, above all, to build a winning team.