Skip to Content

Teaming in the Workplace: Building a Team That is "Great By Choice"

We’ve been helping organizations implement teams for nearly three decades, with quite frankly, mixed results.  While the approach for designing a high-performance workplace is quite well known, the variables that influence success are often not recognized or given the importance necessary for success.

I recently finished Jim Collins and Morton Hansen’s book, Great By Choice, and thought it might be helpful to weave in some of their research nuggets with our years of “in the trenches” experience to provide new insight for those who want to achieve a highly engaged, highly successful organization.

In our fast-moving society, we want change to take place and deliver results within a very short window of time.  For teaming, organizations are often eager to see accomplishments within months of launching the teams, not recognizing that the existing culture took years to build and will probably take up to three years to dismantle.  Hansen and Collins refer to successful leaders as recognizing the need for and building a “20-mile march” approach to change.  Twenty miles day, after day, after day.  Not 20 miles one day and 40 miles the next day and then 5 miles the third day.  Winners invest for the long haul, “hitting stepwise performance markers with great consistency over a long period of time.” (Great by Choice, pg. 45)

Deb Mackin offers first teaming workshop in 1986

What does this mean for teaming? It means identifying the key behaviors and deliverables for coaches and teams and then building the capability to deliver day after day.  Come to think of it, that’s not just good advice for teaming, but truly for any change initiative: consistency in approach for the long haul.

We know that teams respond to effective coaches, ones who can quickly diagnose the competency and commitment levels of the team and use an appropriate leadership method in response to the team’s needs.  For example, a launching team needs a coach who is very present, provides advice and guidance and encourages and nurtures the team’s independence.  They do not simply start out by saying, “Okay, you’re a team now, so off you go and empower yourselves.”

Collins and Hansen found the same thing as they studied successful leaders.  They are not the bold, risk-seeking visionaries we might assume.  They report that successful leaders “observed what worked, figured out why it worked, and built upon a proven foundation.  They were not more risk taking, more bold, more visionary, and more creative than the comparisons.  They were more disciplined, more empirical, and more paranoid.”  (Great by Choice, pg. 9)  Interesting word – paranoid.  Great leaders recognize that difficulties will occur and prepare themselves for them; they “build reserves and buffers – oxygen canisters – to prepare for unexpected events and bad luck before they happen.” (Great by Choice, pg. 103)  Teaming is not easy, nor is it our natural state of being.  We’ve been raised in an “I” culture, but must work in a “We” environment.  Team coaches must prepare for their teams to have rough days when personalities clash, mistakes are made and nobody wants to take accountability and then respond, not by losing heart, but by “zooming out and zooming in – being obsessively focused on objectives and hyper-vigilant about changes in the environment, pushing for perfect execution and adjusting to changing conditions.” (Great by Choice, pg. 114)

Lisa Dunbar leads a team in 1990

Success in teaming requires discipline, which Collins and Morton define as “consistency of action.”  In a traditional environment we expect management to be disciplined and the worker to need a supervisor to ensure that he or she stays disciplined.  Team-based environments believe that workers – as adults – are all capable of disciplining themselves once they buy into the values, long-term goals, performance standards and methods of a high performance environment.  The leaders, as Collins and Hansen suggest, must be “utterly relentless and unbending …capable of immense perseverance, unyielding in their standards yet disciplined enough not to overreach.”  Teaming cannot be the “flavor of the month,” an interesting idea read in a book or a short-term fix to poor scores on an employee engagement survey.

Here the Great by Choice SMaC recipe applies.  SMaC stands for specific, methodical and consistent; they reference former Southwest Airlines CEO Howard Putnam’s list of 10 key points for success.  “Putnam laid out a clear, simple and concrete framework for decisions and action” (Great by Choice, pg. 127), not a bland, generic, vacuous statement that so often happens when leaders speak about teaming.  I think that’s why when teaming and Lean stand side-by-side as options; leaders find it so much easier to talk the practicality of Lean than they do to talk Teams.  What I don’t understand is why aren’t Teams and Lean aren’t joint key elements in the SMaC recipe?

Michael Harrington leads a new brand of teaming in 2009

Teaming has proven to increase productivity by 30% over a twelve to eighteen month period.  We’ve actually seen much faster productivity jumps, but hesitate to suggest it for fear that it will become the expectation.  Successful teaming requires the approach we see in a book like Great by Choice:  recognition that it’s a 20-mile march day after day after day; zooming out to gain perspective, then zooming in with a specific plan, defining the SMaC Recipe for your success, and developing leaders with fanatic discipline, empirical creativity and productive paranoia.


Got questions on teaming or how to implement a teaming structure within your department or organization?  I encourage you to download our FREE Team-Building FAQ Guide to answer the many questions of workplace team-building:


Who We Are

An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

Our Twitter Feed

  • Our sister site,, just launched our newest web series focused on generations in... 23 hours ago
  • A fellow bee enthusiast, our thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Burt's Bees family... 2 days ago
  • Our newest feature over on - check it out!... 2 weeks ago
  • A great discussion with the USDA Rural Development Department of VT and NH earlier this month!... 3 weeks ago
  • Missed Cross Pollination today? Don't worry you can catch up and listen here... 3 weeks ago