Teams Need More Than Label

There are a lot of definitions for the word team, and I have my own: “The most misused word in business.” The U.S. Olympic basketball squad and the players who represented the United States at the recent Ryder Cup are evidence that calling a group of highly talented people working on the same thing a team does not necessarily make them one.

Workgroups are common, teams are rare. Rarer still are high-performance teams. Yet if an organizational leader creates an environment that fosters a true high-performance team, magic happens. One of the best examples I have ever run across is the da Vinci Program at Hewlett-Packard, which was featured a year after its launch in the pages of Fortune magazine for its extraordinary business results and team esprit de corps. I have been fortunate enough to know and work with Julie Anderson, who led the team and who was very generous in providing the background for this article.

About 10 years ago, Julie, then a manager in Hewlett-Packard’s distribution organization, volunteered to lead a program to replace the order fulfillment system used for a multibillion dollar U.S. consumer business. The business was growing fast, and several attempts had been made to update the existing home-grown application. The most recent program was canceled after several years, a large team and a generous budget. Julie felt that certain constraints — focusing the effort on delivering customer value, a short time frame and a limited budget — could help the project succeed if the team members were able to work creatively. First, she focused on establishing a work environment that was supportive of team accomplishment. The original da Vinci Program team consisted of employees from each of the key HP business functions and two outside supply-chain partners who were crucial for the delivery of HP products to customers.

With that in place, Julie did what many would call project management heresy. She removed titles and hierarchy from the team structure and steadfastly refused to tell anyone what to do. Initially there was frustration while the team members struggled with their respective roles and attempted to agree on an approach.

What Julie did do was create the opportunity for the team members to understand all aspects of the supply chain and for each team member to use all of his skills independent of his previous job descriptions. Armed with knowledge of the business and surrounded by accessible, skilled team members and a space created by the boss’ refusal to direct the process, something powerful emerged. The team began to fill that vacuum with self-directed leadership. They began to understand that no one was more qualified to serve the customer or make technical decisions than themselves — each team member became accountable for the team’s results.

Julie describes her role during that time as keeping everyone focused on the business problem they were there to solve and reminding them of the constraints. As the program grew in scope, complexity increased. Sophisticated models for logistics and distribution were needed. No one person knew the answer or could design the solution — it took the talents of the entire team working together on a shared goal. Julie challenged herself and the team members to focus on the question “How am I contributing to the result?” versus the more usual “How do I appear to others?” Once a week the entire team participated in a team-development meeting that helped identify barriers and generate solutions for moving forward.

Results? The da Vinci team improved customer service while implementing a state-of-the-art, off-the-shelf order fulfillment system — and the project was completed under budget and ahead of schedule. The process logic and information systems first implemented by the da Vinci Program have evolved but are still in use today at Hewlett-Packard.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, October 18, 2004.