Business schools are missing a trick. While it is increasingly recognised that teamwork is an essential ingredient for success and that effective teams can be actively developed, business education continues to focus on training individuals to be team players. Instead, it should be focusing on the far more effective approach of helping real teams to become better together.
In these complex, connected and fast-moving times, there are few meaningful opportunities and challenges that can be mastered alone. The myth of the single great leader is just that, a myth. A Formula One driver can be instinctively quick, but finish down the field in a poorly designed car, running the wrong race strategy. And while the idea of James Bond falling from the sky to single-handedly save the world captures our imagination, the reality is that the most urgent and daring missions are executed by teams of elite soldiers who have been handpicked and relentlessly trained to operate as a cohesive unit.
Effective teamwork is a vital ingredient for success, but there is a sizeable gap in business between working in a team and a team that works well. As many once high-flying companies now grounded by groupthink have discovered, failure to operate effectively as a team at the top can exact a high price. Equally, politics and rivalry between a divided top tier can quickly distract and diminish productivity through the levels below.
Business schools may acknowledge the need to help build better top teams, but their approach remains wrongly rooted in developing individual leaders. Many courses use group projects as a means for individuals to learn how to become a better team player. At the MBA level this individualised focus towards teamwork is necessary as such students are rarely part of an existing team. But for members of existing teams at the top, looking to improve their collective capability, the typical executive education offering of atomised leadership programmes is insufficient and amounts to little more than team tourism.
It takes more than a collection of individuals, however talented or individually trained, to make a team more valuable than the sum of its parts. High-performing teams are the result of the dynamic between individual members and evolving better teamwork and team spirit requires addressing the team as a whole.
Even after 50 years the Rolling Stones still devote two months to rehearsing together before every tour. By comparison, the typical business school approach would have Mick Jagger undertaking solo vocal coaching and then jamming with some great musicians from other bands. It might help, but it will be nowhere near as effective as the time spent with the Stones, developing their ability to perform in concert. The most effective approach to improving teamwork is based on the whole team practising, repeatedly and until it becomes second nature. Excellent teamwork is a high-performance habit learnt together.
The SAS has long understood that team spirit is also best developed by the whole team, undertaking challenging experiences, together. Such shared experience builds bonds between team members; the stronger the experience the stronger the bond. Many MBA students forge networks that endure for decades, but business schools provide few opportunities for existing executive teams to accelerate building trust and cohesion as a unit.
Teams can and do improve their collaboration and cohesion, but they only do so through the team developing together. Business education needs to shift from its focus on individual leaders to enabling intact teams to define their own terms of performance and allow them to practise and share meaningful experiences together. Only then can business schools support the urgent task of building better teams at the top.
The writer is author of ‘Superteams’ (Penguin Portfolio)