Let me start by stating that I don’t read management books. No, really: I don’t! I find the time that’s needed to plough through page after page of theory, models and narrative too precious: I tend to be easily distracted by a more instantly rewarding activity. Don’t get me wrong: I am very passionate about the work I do in helping leaders and teams to be better at managing the relationships that are key to their success. But I have known for a long time that I have a strong activist pragmatist learning style: I prefer my models and approaches to be packaged with a discussion in a few slides.

So my heart sank when I was asked to review this book, and the title gave me scant hope that this would be any different. But, sitting on a flight to Prague, I surprised myself not just by finding the time but also by managing to read the whole book in one sitting!

The key is the style. Told as a leadership fable, it reminds me of the few management books that have worked for me (The One Minute Manager, Who Moved My Cheese?) in that the key vehicle is a narrative story that reads a bit like a soap opera. (And yes, I did manage to guess most of the twists and turns in the plot).

The story takes us through the first 12 months in the life of Kathryn, a new CEO, as she moulds a high performing executive team from one that has been failing badly despite having all the capability and resources required not only for success but potentially for market domination in their chosen field.

While this in itself makes it an easy read, the key to its success for me is the plausibility of the characters involved. Lencioni describes one of the team, the British Head of Engineering, as a reclusive technocrat who sat behind his open laptop at meetings and only commented when someone made a statement he thought was factually inaccurate, which he then corrected with a sarcastic barb. He sounds like someone most of us have met at least once, doesn’t he?

(There was, however, one notable exception – more of which later.)

On reflection there is no ‘rocket science’ here, no flash of inspiration from a new leadership theory or insight. Instead, there is a simple, accessible model of how to invest time in building strong relationships that hold a team in good stead when it needs to pull together to deliver a demanding business agenda. There is no substitute for hard graft to get things done: the main message here is that that graft should start with getting the people at the top of an organisation working well together.

In the course of my experience working with CEOs and their teams, two critical truths have become clear to me. First, genuine teamwork in most organisations remains as elusive as it has ever been. Second, organisations fail to achieve teamwork because they unknowingly fall prey to five natural but dangerous pitfalls, which I call the five dysfunctions of a team’.”
Patrick Lencioni

Of course, if all that this book offered was a pulp fiction version of corporate life then it would not be so worthy of note. Instead, Lencioni backs up the narrative with a final chapter offering practical tools for people working with teams to improve their performance. His model of five dysfunctions also works well for me: I find it easier – and more plausible – to relate to descriptions of what is wrong than with some visionary landscape of exceptional teamwork. (The parable approach appears to work for others too: USA Today reported an unexpected take-up of the book among NFL coaches, keen to learn from its approach and to apply to a very different kind of teamwork.)

So what are these dysfunctions that Lencioni clearly describes in the last chapter as an “interrelated model, making susceptibility to even one of them potentially lethal for the success of the team”? In a very particular order – as they build on each other – they are:

  • An absence of trust
  • A fear of conflict
  • A lack of commitment
  • The avoidance of accountability
  • An inattention to results

Lencioni is a clever cookie who covers all bases so, for those of you that prefer the optimistic/positive approach, he describes the utopian end game of a high performing team as one that behaves in the following manner:

  1. They trust one another
  2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas
  3. They commit to decisions and plans of action
  4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans
  5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.

This is, of course, simple to describe – but extremely difficult to do given the requisite levels of discipline and persistence, which most teams find hard to muster. Recognising that treatment is harder than diagnosis, the book ends with practical exercises that teams can adopt to work through some of these issues and improve their performance. Many of the processes in this book are part of our arsenal when we are working with such teams during our OD, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching assignments.

So what was that one notable exception that strained my credulity?

Of course, most teams don’t possess such an enlightened and skilled operator in their CEO as Kathryn. (Indeed, some would argue that in most teams the rot starts at the top!) Inevitably, what is required in most organisations is a skilled practitioner who can coach both a team and its individual members as they work through the exercises to grow and achieve together. Which is why I don’t usually have the time to read books …

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