What’s going on, here?

Research at Harvard University shows that most teams underperform despite the incredible amount of time and money invested in them.  Shockingly, the studies reveal that it’s even common to have members disagree on what the team is supposed to be doing!  Perhaps a bigger surprise is that in many cases people do not know who is on or not on the team.  Incredible.

Despite that sobering reality, there’s a reason why people throughout history have been working on teams.  Because they work!

Consider this…

In an idealized scenario, teams can:   

  • Increase overall productivity, efficiency, and the speed of work.
  • Distribute the allocation of work and promote healthy in-team competition.
  • Catalyze connection, creativity, and cohesiveness among team members.

So Why do Teams Fail?

That’s the obvious question.  Why is it so hard to make teams succeed and actually produce the positive outcomes outlined above?

Here’s my take on that question after 25 years as a CEO Leader:

Most leaders know the “must-be-done” imperatives for making a team successful.  That’s not the issue.  They just don’t act on them.  Instead, a transactional focus has taken over the process and marginalized performance. 

That’s too bad because even the slightest increase in discipline behind forming and leading teams would send the success rate skyrocketing from its current mooring in mediocrity.

The End of Transactional Thinking

Any discussion about teams in the 21st Century should start with an acknowledgement that teamwork today is different than it was yesterday.  Teamwork today is not built around the anachronistic Post-WWII hierarchical model which focused on a TRANSACTIONAL mindset.

There’s a good reason why yesterday’s approach no longer works.  The transactional mindset quickly puts a team in a “we do things…” mode.  That leads to the creation of teams that miss the mark by 1) Studying the situation; 2) Reviewing the competition; and 3) Creating a Strategic Plan.

That’s yesterday.

Today’s TRANSFORMATIONAL orientation leads teams in a much more positive direction.  Ultimately, it produces teams that 1) Confront reality; 2) Create differentiated distinction over the competition; and 3) Build a flexible and discovery-based Strategic Frame—not a rigid Strategic Plan.

Teams in the 21st Century cannot be transactional because organizations can’t be transactional!

White-Hot Competition

This new era with its white-hot competition and ever-tightening margin squeeze–what I call the ChangeAge–means organizations must be transformational just to keep up.  If teams are one of the most effective ways to reach the organization’s goals, then those teams must be charged with the same performance and accountability standards that the ChangeAgedemands.  Transformation.

Building transformational teams is not a choice.  It’s an imperative.

Welcome to the ChangeAge.   The transaction economy is dead.

The 5-Step Antidote to Underperforming Teams

Here’s a quick review of what we’ve established to this point:

  • Teams are a key ingredient in achieving organizational success.  They work.
  • But team success is not automatic and research shows that most teams underperform.
  • Underperforming teams wrongly operate with a transaction mindset when a transformational model should be used to keep up in an environment that is constantly in flux.

Against that backdrop and challenge, here’s my 5-Step Antidote to Underperforming Teams:

Antidote #1


In order to produce transformational results, teams responsible for making a vision become reality must have a “guiding light” theme that can spark and sustain commitment to the mission.  Commonly built around a metaphor, the theme serves as inspiration and ballast to keep the team “between the rails” as it moves forward. The theme also provides the glue needed to bind everyone together in unity.

Every team needs a theme.

One of the best examples of an effective unifying theme can be seen in the NFLevolutionProgram.  Until recently the NFL had actually denied the link between football and brain injury.  Only when it could no longer fight the findings with a straight face did the NFL reverse its position and acknowledge the correlation between football collisions and long-term brain damage.  That led to the launch of a comprehensive new Theme Platform called NFLevolution, a multi-million dollar commitment to make changes in the rules, equipment and treatment for brain injury.

The NFL moves all of its strategies and programs through the NFLevolution theme filter.

Antidote #2


Obviously a theme cannot do the team’s work, let alone produce transformation.  The team needs Leadership Direction that creates an overarching purpose to reach a specified and shared vision end-state.  However, there’s a caution sign on this road.  The “Direction Purpose” must be deep and significant.   It can’t merely be another way to say “if we do this, we’ll be successful.”  The direction must clearly capture and communicate the team’s goals; strategic context; action plan; and support systems—information, operations, and communications.

A team’s direction is its STRATEGIC FRAME.

Antidote #3


With a compelling theme and clear direction set, teams that transform must also make sure each member’s role is clear to them–and to the others.

Building a successful team actually starts at the outset when the team is assembled.  The right number of people—I believe the optimum count is 5-8—must be assigned to the team.  It’s no wonder that the success rate of teams has gone down as the average number of members has gone up over the past 20 years under the guise of “promoting inclusion.”  That inclusion goal has been met while performance goals have been eviscerated.

Play Hockey!

Equally important to member selection is the mix of players on the team so multiple roles are represented.  For example, if everyone was a visionary…or a tactician…or financial analyst…the results would be disastrous.

A great example of role clarity comes from ice hockey where every team fills the following roles:

  • SNIPER: The difficult-to-find ability to score goals.
  • ENFORCER: The tough guy who forces the opponent to “play fair.”
  • GRINDERS: The gritty guys who establish and maintain energy.
  • PENALTY KILL: Skill players and grinders who kill off penalties.
  • PENALTY TEAM: Snipers and skill players who can score when the opponent is penalized.

The hockey example is perfect for organizational teams trying to put the most efficient and effective combination of skills and experience in play.

The Renegade

One last—and unpopular—point on roles is that every team needs a RENEGADE.  That’s right, a real-life deviant who can challenge the inexorable push for homogeneity which stifles creativity, learning, and ultimately thwarts success.  Renegades are the team members who have the courage to say, “Wait a minute…” or wonder out loud “What if…” or stand up and ask“Why…”

In the end, it is essential that every member on a team clearly understands their own individual role along with how their role relates to the other roles being performed.  It’s important at this stage that every member on the team knows the whole is bigger than their individual part, and they are participating in something bigger than themselves.

Antidote #4


Once the theme, direction, and roles are established…

Members must individually and collectively commit to the team’s mission and its goals.  But it cannot be a passive commitment.  It must be a “covenant commitment” with the full responsibility that comes with that name.  Without it, there’s a good chance one or more team members will never reach the required “all-in” level of involvement.

The best teams are those that have a healthy culture based on honesty and trust.  That culture will breed an atmosphere which values the freedom to share all ideas as often as necessary.  When people are working well together, they feel comfortable expressing their opinions and engaging in healthy discourse.  Without this tension to float key issues to the surface, transformation will never happen.

Of course it’s mandatory that everyone commits to the team’s Vision, Mission, and Goals.  But there’s another dimension to team commitment.  Members must also agree to:

  • Be active and energized participants in the process—allthe time.
  • Drop all facades and offer genuine encouragement and collaboration.

Antidote #5


Even if a team has a unifying theme, clear direction, defined roles, and makes a covenant commitment…

It must still take action to move forward and get the work done!  The team must execute against the strategic imperatives that have been established or the entire process will be nothing more than a giant drain of resources.

Teams must operate with an action bias that flexes along the way when the environment signals the need for a course correction.   Those course corrections, collectively, ensure continuous improvement over the team’s life span.


There you have it—the 5-Step antidote to underperforming teams.

I can help you!  Go to www.yellowchairstrategy.com for more information.