The Secret Glue of High Performance Teams

As we all know, in business, sports, communities, and families, there are teams and then there are teams. What is it that truly holds a team together and positions it to be a high performer? Is it:

  • Individual competencies?
  • Team culture?
  • Challenging goals?
  • Harmonious relationships?
  • Strong leadership?
  • Team structure?
  • Good coaching?
  • These are all important contributors to team effectiveness, but they can be cancelled out if something else is missing. That something – interdependence – is the invisible glue that engages all of the above factors and holds teams together.

To fully understand what interdependence means, we must first contrast it with two related terms: independence and dependence. Independence describes situations where “I can get what I need by myself.” Dependence describes situations where “I am controlled by someone or something else.”

Interdependence describes situations where “we need each other to get what we need.” The “we need” element in this definition connects the notion of a common goal with interdependence. Our common goal requires us to collaborate and work together.

The purpose of this paper is to more closely examine the dynamics of interdependence and review some design mechanisms that have been used successfully to reinforce the effectiveness of interdependent teamwork.

A Team in Name Only

 I have often come across situations where I was introduced to a “team” in an organization. Some of these teams had 50 members. Some were a collection of individuals in the same department who came together periodically only to share information. Many teams were struggling to improve their teamwork and reach very challenging business targets because some of their roles were duplicative or did not add value to the targets. In my opinion, none of these was actually a team.

Some people don’t like teams. For independent people who actually get needed results working alone, spending time with a team of people only slows them down and dilutes the expertise they personally bring to the business. Their resentment is real if team members are not truly interdependent; if they have been organized under the simple assumption that any form of teamwork is better. Unless the teamwork is actually designed to add value to individual contributions, a team may exist in name only.

This diagram illustrates “a team in name only.” It is made up of independent individuals who have various and conflicting needs and goals. This team is literally coming apart at the seams because there is no compelling common team goal. There is no binding glue.

Of such teams, W. Edwards Deming used to say, “Can you imagine anything more destructive than to tell people to do their best? People whose goals conflict with each other and who are headed in different directions? If you tell them to do their best, they will all charge off in different directions even faster.”

Then Deming would add the punch line, “It might be better to say nothing.”

As Deming points out, defining some team goals that every member deeply cares about and is fully committed to fulfill is the foundation of interdependence. But other factors have to kick in to bind team members together.

There are different levels of interdependence: task, support, function, and leadership. Let’s examine carefully each of these levels.

Task interdependence

We need each other’s efforts to produce our immediate required output.


This is the primary interdependency of a team, to work together to deliver the output and fulfill the goal. Clearly defining the tasks and team member roles for performing them is essential to get the work done.

Harvard professor J. Richard Hackman’s research identified five primary conditions that increase team effectiveness. Three of them relate to this task interdependence:

  1. A compelling purpose: one that is clear, challenging, consequential, and focused on ends rather than means.
  2. A real team: clear boundaries that de ne a whole task (tangible products or services), task interdependence, and moderate stability.
  3. An enabling work structure (tasks, roles, and norms of conduct).

These three conditions are brought to life by the organization design elements of common purpose, boundaries, tasks, structure, roles, and norms of conduct. In other words, you can design task interdependence into an organizational unit.

Here’s an example of these design features in action:

The “Alpha” team worked in a production operation for a Fortune 500 company. It had ve members who operated one production line. The team members took great pride in their product as it provided important health care for family members. “I make product X,” team members would eagerly tell their neighbors.

Each person was responsible for one of the production tasks that had to be in sync with all the others. If one area came to a stop, the entire process stopped. Once each team member mastered his/her responsibilities, the production process had very few stoppages.

The raw materials were tested thoroughly to ensure their compatibility with the production process. Equipment was maintained on a strict schedule to minimize wear and tear and breakdowns. Quality was monitored frequently during each shift. Accounting systems monitored performance vs. budget and cost savings totals. Team members were trained periodically on technical skills, teamwork practices, and new equipment operation.

Most of these support tasks were done by the team members themselves in addition to their operating responsibilities. Their task interdependence was very high and spanned the entire breadth of what was needed to deliver a high quality product to the customer. Small wonder that Alpha team’s product was number one in the market.

Support interdependence

We need each other’s support from time to time to produce our immediate required output.

No work process ever runs 100% error free all the time. Team members occasionally need help from others to keep things running smoothly. So team members must be willing and able to help each other when the occasions arise. This is #4 in Hackman’s conditions for effective teams.

  1. A supportive social system that provides resources and assistance when needed.

 In the words of Brian Andreas:

“You may not remember the time you let me go first.

Or the time you dropped back to tell me it wasn’t that far to go.

Or the time you waited at the crossroads for me to catch up.

You may not remember any of those, but I do and this is what I have to say to you:

Today, no matter what it takes, we ride home together.”

This same dynamic from the foregoing verses occurs at work when team members help each other out of annoying, embarrassing, or even dangerous situations. Or when experienced team members help newcomers join up smoothly and effectively. Such support changes relationships and shapes reciprocal collaboration among individuals.

Though such a supportive culture is driven largely by team norms of mutual support, it also can be strengthened by some design features. For instance, periodic rotation among task roles gives each team member the competence to help out in other roles and the experience to understand their complexities.

As the diagram illustrates, mutual support is enabled when team members have experience in each other’s tasks. Here’s a good example of this support interdependence by a leader in the hotel industry:

All managers at the “Omega” Hotel started their employment at the front desk because of its close connection with every other department in the hotel. Registration, concierge, housekeeping, maintenance, restaurants, room service, business center, parking, banquets & catering, and conferences all had to be integrated with the front desk so the guests experienced a seamless delivery of hotel services. After successful completion of this rst assignment, managers were then transferred to one of these other departments for full-time responsibility.

This system easily imbued every Omega manager with a clear view of the big picture – how his/her function needed to team up with any other group in the hotel. In unusual or emergency situations, these managers could even ll in for a short-period of time in another department – with no noticeable drop in service to the hotel guests. The Omega Hotel continues to be among the world leaders in guest satisfaction.

Functional Interdependence

Our functional outputs must be aligned with others to deliver the ultimate required output.

Your teamwork and its output are only pieces of a larger process, illustrated here by three teams. Interdependent tasks and needs for support extend beyond your own immediate team. The alignment of the multiple functions that make up the larger process is critical for delivering a high quality product to the end user. In other words, whole systems alignment, more so than individual team brilliance, delivers the greatest overall value.


There are many organization design tools that can foster this functional interdependence. For example, the functional process needs a clearly defined goal just as each individual team does. This functional goal, however, is different than the mere collection of sub-team goals. The functional process goal should specify the desired outputs when the sub- teams work together. This might be reflected in cycle times, quality standards, or continuous improvement targets in addition to the final output for the end user.

Multifunctional strategy teams, business teams, or project teams can integrate and align different functions’ priorities and work processes to optimize the whole and not just the parts. Networks and learning communities can generate big ideas and move them through the organization much faster than traditional processes. Boundary-spanning specialist roles in IT, product technologies, organization design, legal, finance, and similar functions can re-apply new developments quickly and easily.

Here is what one team was able to accomplish because of its superb functional interdependence:

Infiniti was a new smartphone that was trying to break into a very crowded marketplace. Other brands were already well established; customers had their “favorite” phone and would be a hard sell to consider a new alternative.

Company management formed a multifunctional team made up of representatives from all the functions that contributed to the phone. The team also included market representatives from the major markets around the globe. This team was given the mission to expand the Infiniti worldwide.

The team considered marketing campaigns, technology options, costs, and sales environments in the different markets. Team members interacted with all local markets to find out what the opportunities and problems might be in each. The output of these many discussions was a reference book that clearly outlined what a winning strategy could be in each market. When this book was reviewed in each country, several of them volunteered to take on the new phone.

Because the Infiniti team had a global test market plan, the true potential of the product was tested in all countries simultaneously, not country by country as had been the previous practice. Opportunities were seized, problems were overcome, and the new product rolled out successfully in record time. Today Infiniti is a successful competitor in many markets.

Leadership Interdependence

 We need each other’s support in fulfilling our team leadership responsibilities.

This is an area that most managers overlook when considering teams and interdependence. The first three levels of interdependence focus on the work to be done and the relationships of those who must team together. In most organizations the teams are then led by one supervisor or team leader.

Leadership interdependence is about dividing up different aspects of team leadership and then sharing them among some team members.

When teams are comprised mostly of competent, committed team members who seek to contribute to the continuous success of the business, such teams are ideal candidates to also become interdependent in leadership responsibilities. Teams at this level experience the final condition of Hackman’s effective team research:

  1. Competent coaching is timely to help the team get over rough spots and take advantage of opportunities.

When different team members share leadership responsibilities, they have to count on each other’s support just as surely as when they execute their work tasks. For example, if the Technical Leader is disruptive and not attentive when the Administration Leader is handling team business, what kind of support can the Technical Leader expect to have when it is her/his turn? Interdependent leadership dynamics build even greater team cohesion than task interdependence alone.

Additionally, shared team leadership actually can improve the quality of leadership as this case example demonstrates:

A Silicon Valley network storage company, “Filz,” faced a brutal corporate life-or-death challenge. In six months, a competitor was coming out with a new server that would make Filz’s current product obsolete. Although Filz had a new product in the works, its typical product development rollout took thirteen months from concept to product.

The company aimed to deliver its new product in five months, a mighty goal, but one without a clear plan to succeed. The company was functionally fragmented into many different departments. Now these functions would have to interact seamlessly with much dialog and many tradeoffs in a very short period of time. If they failed to do this, several thousand employees would be out of work.

Filz formed 25 multifunctional teams composed of hardware and software engineers, sprinkled with a dash of marketing, operations, and finance representatives. Each team was charged with building one of the features as part of the new product architecture. However, none of the teams had a member with experience leading such a team.

It was time for a reframe. Instead of considering the leadership function as something for which one person would take complete responsibility, the 10 team leadership functions were each discussed and assigned to whomever could manage one, two, or even three items. For most teams, three or four people combined their abilities to fill the requirements for the list of 10.

These three or four team leaders had to negotiate the overlapping issues with their related counterparts on the other 24 teams. Each leader worked hard to correctly determine which of the other teams they needed to connect with functionally. Typically, two to four teams needed to align their output with each other. Next, the team leaders worked together to bridge overlaps and differences and work out practical compromises in the interests of the larger objective.

A new culture was emerging within this network of small clusters of interdependent team leaders. Things were getting done quickly and effectively. Benchmarks and timelines were being met. Engineers talked about how they were solving the technical problems with each other without the usual delays, unnecessary group meetings, and second-guessing from managers above them. Each of the 10 leadership areas actually received closer attention and better alignment because of the dispersed leadership structure.

Bottom line: Filz’s 25 teams all came through. They delivered their new product in three and a half months! They shattered their own “unrealistic” target and saved their company as well as their own jobs.


Interdependence isn’t required for every task. Nor is collaboration always the answer to a problem. Let independent people do independent tasks. Eliminate unnecessary functional dependencies in the work place. But, as the organizational examples provided here demonstrate, you must be able to collaborate when interdependence is real.

The Alpha production team was essentially self-sufficient for producing its product every day. And that’s exactly what it was designed to do.

All managers in the Omega Hotel understood the interdependencies in their organization and could add value by teaming up with other departments. Their “big picture” perspectives and attitudes were contagious to all Omega associates. Guests never heard, “That’s not my job,” from an Omega associate.

The Infiniti smartphone overcame conventional market wisdom and global challenges by collaborating to deliver the right product in less time to multiple markets because their team members created and deployed a strategy that paid off.

Filz saved itself by distributing traditional leadership responsibilities to multiple teams and team members, who each led integration efforts with each other.

Team spirit and goodwill are critical, but so is the organization design of teamwork. Design your organizational roles, processes, and systems to align with natural interdependencies in tasks, support needs, functional alignments, and leadership to develop teams that have the capability to respond appropriately to any set of tasks in any situation.

When you must collaborate to get results, you find a way to do it. When collaboration gets better results, you actually want to do it.

For more information about high performance organizations, teams, and leadership go to


ExceLence Management

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