March 10, 2017

“Extreme Teams” useful but hard to implement

“Extreme Teams” 2017, by Robert Bruce Shaw, Amacom, $27.95, 247 pages

No man is an island.

He (or she) can’t do everything alone. We need help sometimes; a group of support, a posse with our best interests in mind. We often need a team to get things done, and in the new book, “Extreme Teams,” by Robert Bruce Shaw, you might learn how to assemble your best.

At natural food store chain Whole Foods, employees work differently.

Each department has a team (or two) that enjoys a certain amount of autonomy, including the ability to hire new workers and the option to ask someone to leave the team. There’s a loose set of rules from the corporation that teams must heed, but for the most part, says Shaw, Whole Foods “thinks teams when most companies think individuals.”

And that, he says, is where profitable, cutting-edge businesses are headed: with teams, or with more employee wiggle-room when a team “is not needed.”

Companies like Whole Foods, Zappos, Airbnb, Patagonia and Pixar have learned that happy (and productive) employees have several traits in common: They have a “shared obsession” with the work and culture. They value coworkers who “fit” and are cohesive with the group. And they embrace a kind of tunnel vision within the big picture.

These are good traits to have and are desirable in many workplaces, but employers must be vigilant. These things can also spectacularly backfire.

Workers with “shared obsession” can become too focused on work; it’s important to allow time for nonwork. Having employees who all “fit” can create an atmosphere of same; it might also cause competitiveness, which may foster a force of fearful workers, especially if it’s tied to job security. And as for that security, more than one company has been sunk by unethical practices meant to “enhance results.”

Overall, says Shaw, are the two main things that extreme teams deliver: results and relationships. To get that, there are many fine lines to straddle and multiple paradoxes, including a comfort with discomfort, communication, contradiction, and what he calls a “hard/soft culture.” It also involves good leadership and simply getting a lot of things right.

Before you start this book, take a deep breath. Pick it up and gently blow the dust off. Yep, “Extreme Teams” is that dry.

While it’s true that there are takeaways inside these pages, it’s not easy to find them. There’s a lot of circle-talk in this book, and many conundrums. Granted, author Robert Bruce Shaw warns his readers about this, but it’s hard to ascertain how to overcome those issues because the business profiles here tend to get in the way. We read about how these cutting-edge companies operate, but useful advice for implementing their practices can be confusing; add the “Will it work for my business?” question, and that could lead to a lot of frustration.

Again, there are useful things inside this book, but it’s very much not for everybody or every business. If you try it, be ready for head-scratching, changes in thinking and a gigantic paradigm shift, or “Extreme Teams” might just leave you adrift.

Terri Schlichenmeyer reviews books about businesses and business practice.

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