What’s wrong with being a “well-oiled machine?” you might ask. “Isn’t that the goal? Smooth-running, friction-free, rolling along”.
Here’s the basic problem with that picture: it’s out of date. It applies to a work environment that passed into history at least a generation ago. Only the mindset remains. The structure of work has changed from assembly line to relationship.
In an industrial age a mechanical model for getting the work done made sense. The mental model reflected the work itself. Each role had a specific function; each hand off was from function to function. I attach a part and pass it to you. You attach your part and pass it along. My outbox becomes your inbox.
Teams were modeled on that same template. Team members were parts in the machine and if the machine wasn’t producing the expected output—if the team machine was burping and belching and miss-firing—the mechanic’s job was to repair or replace the broken part. The hunt to pinpoint the problem and fix it by exchanging parts was a primary role for team leaders and created the need to constantly assess the performance of the “parts”. That imperative built a multi-billion dollar performance management industry focused on individuals.
But the nature of work has changed. In an information age—and with the technology infrastructure to support it—virtually all work in organizations is accomplished in relationship. Somewhere behind millions of computer screens, tablets and smartphones, the world of work proceeds, carried by communication networks, wired and Wi-Fi.
It is most clearly evident when we look at teams in today’s organizations. The teams are more horizontal, more distributed—sometimes globally—and the hand offs are no longer function to function, assembly line-style, they are person to person. You can’t put your work on a cart and roll it down the hall. You actually have to talk to someone even if it’s just a text. At least that is true on high performing teams. That’s what I meant by “This team is NOT a well-oiled machine” in the headline.
This high performing team is a system — a living system. These human systems are naturally dynamic. They grow and change; they adapt to changing conditions. They are inherently messy, chaotic, and need to be. To survive and thrive they must be both resilient and flexible.
The infrastructure that makes that possible is invisible and essential. It shows up in behavior—it is the culture of the team that empowers, supports, and guides team performance. On high performing teams there are high levels of trust and respect, a strong sense of belonging to something important, effective communication, the safety and encouragement to disagree for the sake of something important to the team. This is a team that counts on those differences of style, problem-solving, and point of view. This is also a team that believes in itself.
Talk to members of high performing teams — we have, for more than 10 years. Those qualities are hallmarks of high performing team culture. Teams that have that infrastructure, that operate as a powerful system, make faster more effective decisions, are more proactive, more aligned, and more accountable to each other. Leadership shows up as a team strength, both from the functional role of team leader and from team members stepping up when stepping up is called for.
It’s the culture of the team that makes that possible. It may be invisible, but you can see it everywhere. It dramatically improves a team’s ability to get results.
That “well-oiled machine” served its purpose in a previous age. But it is too rigid to operate effectively in today’s world. Unfortunately many teams and team leaders still operate with that mindset. They are more committed to a smooth ride than they are to the mission. The effort to ensure “friction-free” restricts a human system from expressing itself; it breeds caution in a world that needs initiative and creativity.
Our work for the last 10-plus years has been based on this understanding of the team as a living system. We see it over and over—in the experience of thousands of team members around the world—and we see how this understanding and the practice it creates, improves the bottom line for teams. We can show you the numbers.