Win with Empowered
Cross-Functional Teams

Teams: Vital Organizational Elements in Thriving Companies

Small, Detached, Empowered Teams, Tribes, and Workgroups

Small, Detached, Empowered, Self-Managed Groups

The groups that people associate with influence their individual behavior. This phenomenon is very well understood by the social psychologists and the sociologists. They call it group dynamics. But it is not generally understood by people managing people in companies.

Hierarchies are the default organizations in companies. They are also the major affliction. If hierarchies worked well, Dilbert would not be funny. Hierarchies alone cannot sustain a company. Hierarchies are effective in maintaining order, and for avoiding mistakes by doing things the same way time after time. But only doing the things that can be done well time after time prevents the creation of new businesses.

As a direct consequence of not creating new businesses, companies decline and die as their mature businesses inevitably decline and die. Consider the failures of industry leaders such as General Motors, Digital Equipment Corporation, Montgomery Ward, and Douglas Aircraft. They all failed because they were unable to offer the customers some new business paradigms that a small number of much smaller companies were able to offer. Those four industry giants were managed into failure by executives who could not see beyond their monumental hierarchies.

A strong hierarchy would be the last organizational choice for a company bent on creating new businesses. The most successful startups are the least hierarchical, the most interconnected within the company and with the customers. The customers get what they want because they can participate in the definition of the company, its businesses, and its products.

Teams, tribes, and workgroups within in big companies can do what startups do, but better. They must be both detached from and nurtured by the hierarchy, like chicks in an egg farm. They can outperform startups in every aspect of creating customers because they have a the strength of an incubator that no startup could match.

Compare and Contrast Teams, Tribes, and Workgroups


Teams, tribes, and workgroups are similar in many ways. For example, all three are operationally detached from the company hierarchy. All three depend on the hierarchy for vital administrative functions, say accounting, legal, HR, etc. All three can change the world, per Margaret Meade's quote in the sidebar.


It's their differences that must be well understood if managers are to apply these groups successfully. Each kind of group excels at different kinds of tasks, operates differently, and naturally serves different purposes better than the others. Their different strengths and weaknesses are vital to the managers and executives who may form and manage any of these groups.

Attributes of Workgroups

Workgroups are the most common detached group in companies of all sizes. Workgroups are active in most companies at all times. People assigned to a project constitute a workgroup. They are committed to delivering a specified outcome, they are detached from the hierarchy between checkpoints, and their administrative needs are met by the hierarchy in its role as incubator.

Workgroup members bring vital functional specialties to the project. Specialists are normally assigned to specific tasks in the project plan. People on Task A work closely together, but not with people on Task B. The assumption is that if every task team meets expectations, the entire project will meet expectations. That can be the case when the outcome can be precisely quantified, say a product that meets all of its predetermined specifications.

Workgroups are hierarchical, e.g. a designated project manager normally has overall project responsibility. If the workgroup is large enough, people will be designated to manage some of the tasks. But the hierarchy in a workgroup, even a big workgroup, has only a small fraction of the complexity and vertical span of the hierarchy in a big company.

Attributes of Tribes

Tribes are seldom used in established companies. They appear accidentally and occasionally in very small companies, say startups and early growth companies.

Unlike workgroups, tribes normally have commercial responsibility for an entire business. A good example is the Skunk Works at Lockheed. This tribe was established by Kelly Johnson's 1943 proposal to design and build the prototype XP-80, the first jet powered fighter plane for the US Army. The Skunk Works is still in operation in Palmdale, CA as Advanced Development Programs, a group committed to creating new innovations, in concert with its customers, that will lead to the mainstream products of tomorrow.

The distinguishing features of tribes are many, but agility and speed driven by direct interaction between the tribe and is customers are the most vital. Kelly Johnson and some of his colleagues proposed three major breakthroughs 30 days after meeting with Army Air Corps officials seeking the first US jet fighter. First, the proposal promised to deliver the prototype XP-80 within 150 days after award of a contract! Second, that proposal required creating the Skunk Works to be operated outside the Lockheed hierarchy and physically separate from the Lockheed facilities. Third, the number of people would be severely limited to about 15% of the number that would have normally been assigned.

The Army gave the green light in 2 days from receiving the proposal, and the dust began to fly. The Skunk Works went to work in a circus tent set up in a parking lot, and they rolled out the XP-80 in 143 days! Think about that. The XP-80 was designed and produced in about 20% of the duration the conventional Lockheed would have required, and it was done with about 15% of the people!

Empowered, Cross-Functional Teams

This is the best choice if the mission is to create new paradigms, e.g. new products in new businesses serving new opportunities. Again, an example may provide the clearest picture.

Boeing used an empowered cross-functional team to manage the 777 program. The team members represented the functional groups in Boeing that would have a stake in the outcome; engineering, production, purchasing, etc. The team size was roughly 14 people, sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more.

The outcomes were staggering. The first 777 was rolled out on the day specified in the original plan created by the team and approved by management. It was not a prototype. It was sold to United Airlines. It was the first airplane designed by Boeing in software. Silicon Graphics provided the means to ensure that every part fit its mates, and that the part could be replaced in the field in normal maintenance by an airline.

The development time span was less than half the time normally required to design and build a new long-haul commercial aircraft. The cost to develop was less than 50% of normal. The maintenance and refueling tasks were simplified, making the 777 a very economical operating choice for the airlines. Perhaps most revolutionary was this: About 450 United Airlines employees worked in Boeing on the development of the 777! Doesn't that seem like a more effective way to learn what customers want than surveys or focus groups?

Attributes of Empowered, Cross Functional Teams

Misuse of the Word "Team"

The misuse of the term "team" seems to us to be rampant in businesses today. The impression we get is people believe the use of the word "team" will create teamwork. To the contrary, the misuse of the word "team" erects obstacles to the formation of real teams by setting bad examples of teams and teamwork.

Chances are there are groups called teams in your business organization. Are they small groups of people committed to something larger than themselves? Are they committed to changing something important in the business, or are they defending the status quo? Are they likely to foster the formation of real teams in your organization?

Leading Factors in Team Success

Conventional wisdom points to things like technical qualifications and individual motivation as the root of team success. But the reasons teams excel or fail have less to do with those two factors, and more to do with the behavioral style of the team as a whole, the personalities of its members and the degree to which the team represents the real stake holders in the team's work products.

Team Styles

Human Synergistics has developed a team profiling system they call Group Styles Inventory (GSI). Human Synergistics GSI

We use the GSI in our Team Launch Workshop  to assess team styles, so we can apply the right training at the right time. Of the 12 factors Human Synergistics has identified as pivotal to team success or failure, only two are remotely similar to technical expertise and personal motivation.

What is NOT a team

Far too often we find the word team badly misunderstood and misapplied in companies of all kinds and all sizes. We have seen the word team used to describe virtually any collection of two or more people. There is often an adjective attached, e.g., the management team, the strategic planning team, or the sales team. These are not teams unless they have all the attributes in the bullet list above. Do they?

Management "Team"

Barry Oshry, in his book Seeing Systems, describes executive management as an aggregate of individuals with individual responsibilities, dedicated to defining, establishing, and defending their individual, independent responsibilities and authority. His conclusions were drawn on the results of more than 200 experiments he calls "Power Labs" and his observations over many years as a business consultant. He has never seen an example in which executive management consistently worked as a team. We haven't seen one either. But we have only been looking for 20 years!

Strategic Planning "Team"

In many companies, people are assigned to the annual rite of creating the new Strategic Plan. The word team is often included in the assignment memo, as if the word itself will create teamwork. It does not. Individuals write sections and chapters with little or no interaction, and someone at a higher level "pulls it all together".

Sales "Team"

Sales people who are independently responsible for designated customers or designated territories, chasing individual quotas, are not teams. They are an aggregation of sales people, a functional element in the overall organization, a workgroup perhaps, but not a team.

Other Examples

Committees and workgroups are not teams, either. In both cases, individuals have causes that they consider more important than the causes of the group. There is an effort by members to get their cause included in the group work product, to give their cause more strength and credibility.

As we see it, no part of a typical functional hierarchy operates as a team. The behavior of a hierarchy is the polar opposite of teamwork. The purpose is to divide responsibility to achieve order, efficiency and accountability. People in hierarchies often mention their "silos", or their "sandboxes", or their "turf". These things are important in hierarchies. They simply have no meaning in teams.

Let's Not Kid Ourselves

Call executives executives. Call management management. Call a group a group. Call a committee a committee. Call an aggregate an aggregate. Reserve the keyword "team" for real teams with the attributes in the first two sections above.

Check out our Team Up! Workshop and our Team Launch Workshop
for more about how we help businesses build real teams.

Contact Us for more information about teams and teamwork,
essential elements of winning businesses.