Preston Smith's Corner

Book Reviews: The Discipline of Teams and Bionic eTeamwork

The Discipline of Teams: A Mindbook-Workbook for Delivering Small Group Performance

Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith; New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001, 239 + xvi pages, $29.95

Bionic eTeamwork: How to Build Collaborative Virtual Teams at Hyperspeed

Jaclyn Kostner; Chicago: Dearborn Trade Publishing,
2001, 198 + xx pages, $25.00
In 1993 two important books on teams appeared, The Wisdom of Teams [2] by Katzenbach and Smith, two McKinsey consultants backed by the vast resources of that organization, and Knights of the Tele-Roundtable [3], written by Jaclyn Kostner, a solo consultant presumably drawing from her own Ph.D. research. Wisdom went on to become a business best seller, translated into fifteen languages, and Knights became an underground classic, foretelling the coming shift to dispersed teams. The authors of both books have updated their thinking on teams with these two new books, so this is an opportune time to revisit two quite different views on building effective teams. As you might expect, both of these books now cover dispersed teams and the role of technology in such teams.

Nearly every study of product development effectiveness has listed strong teams as a key factor of success, and almost every organization today would claim to use cross-functional development teams. However, there seems to be considerable opportunity for improvement in how teams operate. A leading researcher of product development success, Robert Cooper, calls many apparently cross-functional teams “fake teams” and lists the earmarks of such dysfunctional teams [1]. These new books on teams would benefit any practitioner wishing to improve product development performance or any researcher desiring to understand important factors in distinguishing effective from weak product development.

The Discipline of Teams is a new book (not a new edition), but it carries forward perfectly from the concepts presented in Wisdom. It will feel quite familiar to anyone who has read Wisdom, but it enters important new ground. Specifically, it makes three advances over Wisdom:

  • In presenting this material over the intervening years, the authors found that some concepts, particularly their concept of a working group, were difficult to grasp and often were incorrectly applied, so these concepts have been recast.
  • Based on experience they have gained in applying Wisdom, they now provide considerable advice in building a team using their concepts.
  • They address the use of dispersed teams, which have arisen since Wisdom appeared.

Bionic eTeamwork is considerably different than Knights, which was a business novel covering the dispersed team of King Arthur and his knights managing Camelot in the sixth century. Bionic has shifted to the style of a how-to book and ratcheted up the energy level from the sixth century to the 22nd century.

These two books offer interesting contrasts and similarities. They are both focused on team performance, but they look at it quite differently. Discipline says, “The most important characteristic of teams is discipline; not bonding, togetherness, or empowerment.” (Page vii) In contrast, Bionic states, “It is important that people on the eTeam like each other and bond on a human level.” (Page 72) Discipline defines a team quite specifically: “A small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” (Page 7) In contrast, Bionic is broader and less specific: “A group of two to thousands that must work together and depend on each other, while communicating mostly through technology.” (Page xvii)

In Wisdom, Katzenbach and Smith contrasted a working group with a team and suggested that the former might be more appropriate than the latter in certain cases. However, readers had difficulty with this distinction, and — because teams always seem to be the “right” choice — could not see a role for a working group. Consequently, in Discipline, the authors change the terminology from a working group to a single-leader discipline and contrast this with a team discipline. In fact, they also employ a third category, an effective group, which includes the basic requirements for any group to work together effectively.

They portray the relationship among the three using the letter Y (their Figure 1.1). At the base of the Y is the effective group. One branch of the Y is the single-leader discipline, while the other is the team discipline. These two branches are options beyond the effective group foundation for those requiring greater performance, each branch having its strengths and its limitations. For example, one category of distinctions is how member roles and responsibilities are handled. According to Katzenbach and Smith, members of an effective group establish clear roles and responsibilities. For the single-leader discipline, the leader sets the roles and responsibilities, often in consultation with the members, but the leader makes the final decision. And for the team discipline, roles and contributions shift over time to satisfy project needs as well as to exploit and develop members’ skills. These roles are more flexible but less predictable than in the single-leader discipline.

This may be intellectually satisfying in a book, but it represents a profound change from how most product development teams operate today. Most teams, when they are formed, want to define roles and responsibilities immediately, and if team members do not mention this, management does. No one feels comfortable in the vacuum of not knowing exactly what each member is to do. But the team discipline requires that roles remain fluid to retain flexibility and exploit and develop skills. Although it may not appear so on the surface, Katzenbach and Smith are describing a team that is far more advanced than most are today, and roles and responsibilities are only one facet that is different than today’s practice.

Another difference between single-leader and teams, which will be a stretch for many, is the notion that individuals on the team cannot fail; only the team can succeed or fail, since all members are locked into common goals, purpose, and work products. In fact, the authors state that “Mutual accountability for shared purpose and goals may be the hallmark of the team discipline.” (Page 10)

Setting up such shared goals and living with the discomfort they may entail is a burden that may not be compensated for by increased performance, so the choice of a team discipline is often not warranted. In general, the team discipline will yield a performance bonus over the more common — and comfortable — single-leader discipline only when the goals require joint work products (which is often the case for product development projects). The authors caution that unless the group can identify important, required collective work products, the team discipline should not be used.

Another rather contrarian approach in Discipline is advice to avoid consensus, which often means settling on compromise. Instead, the authors suggest that the topic in question be discussed until the objector(s) fully understand the opposing view and why it has support. This converts unenlightened disagreement into enlightened disagreement without stymieing the team. Note that in the single-leader discipline, this issue would never arise, because the leader would decide.

Discipline is structured crisply. After some initial chapters that introduce the three types of groups and related fundamentals, the authors proceed methodically through the definition of a team, word by word, describing “small number” (fewer than ten) of “people with complementary skills” in Chapter 5, “committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach” in Chapter 6, and “hold themselves mutually accountable” in Chapter 7. Chapter 8 (and Chapter 2) focuses on dispersed teams, and Chapter 9 provides helpful advice for getting unstuck when a team inevitably encounters a roadblock. Each chapter provides a “mindbook,” providing the concepts, approaches and tools, and a “workbook” with exercises to reinforce the mindbook.

In contrast. Bionic is more of a stream-of-consciousness work, perhaps owing to Kostner’s assertion that she used speech-recognition technology to write the book, not entering a single keystroke herself (Page xix). Each of her chapters ends with two items, a so-called checklist, which is more of a chapter summary in a format so standardized that I found it not too helpful, and a table of “things you can do today,” broken into three columns: eLeaders, eTeams, and Individuals. As you can see, Kostner coins many e-words and uses others in futuristic ways. For example, the title word, bionic, is explained as “using technology in ways that break through human limitations.” (Page xii)

Although she clearly loves technology, Kostner devotes relatively little space to it directly and is relatively cautious about overemphasizing it. She agrees with Katzenbach and Smith that the technology is only an enabler, not a solution in itself: “Bionic eTeamwork is not about technology. Technology will always be in the picture. Bionic eTeamwork is about how people use technology to motivate, involve, and interact in very human ways.” (Page 37) As Katzenbach and Smith see it, “Technology is an enabler of both disciplines, not a substitute for either” (Page 28), adding that technology will not provide the necessary discipline. They also note that “Technology reinforces natural biases toward the single-leader, instead of the team, discipline, often at the expense of performance results.” (Page 152)

Discipline describes three characteristics of technology that have potentially both positive and negative effects on team effectiveness: expanded access, asynchronous participation, and disembodied communication (loss of the human element). For example, expanded access increases the team’s access to outside information, but it also tends to expand the team beyond an effective size (fewer than ten) and threatens the privacy of team communication.

Bionic suggests three stages in becoming adept at using the technology. First is disabled, which either ignores the technology or is averse to it; for example, the leader still hops on a plane whenever she needs to communicate with someone. The second stage is mechanical, which uses the technology, but only to automate older routines. Third is — you guessed it — bionic, in which members discover how to exploit the technology to exceed their own human performance.

Both books address training, and they agree that it should be done on a just-in-time basis as it is needed. Discipline emphasizes team skill training and coaching focused on the team’s immediate performance challenge, and Bionic focuses on technology training, suggesting that it should be provided in small doses with time for members to try what they have learned in the actual team context.

However, these books differ on the purpose of face-to-face meetings. Discipline advises, “Group sessions should rarely be held for the purpose of bonding or togetherness; those are by products of performance. Instead, such sessions should have a clear purpose related to the performance results required.” (Page 78) In contrast, Bionic counsels, “For Bionic eTeamwork, people travel to create rapport more than to do the work.” (Page 56)

Similarly, they differ on whether dispersed teams require a different approach than co-located ones. Bionic is emphatic: “If you want faster decisions . . . faster anything related to human teamwork or performance — you won’t get it if you stay in methods designed for another era.” (Page 178) Discipline –– true to its belief in the constancy of its disciplines — agrees that dispersed teams ‘offer markedly different challenges than co-located ones, but believes that the same two disciplines apply equally in the new context.

These fundamental differences in approach as to how teams should be managed suggest to me that we still have much to learn about high-performance teams.

Preston G. Smith CMC
New Product Dynamics


1. Cooper RG. Winning at new products. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 2003. p. 119.
2. Katzenbach JR. and Smith DK. The wisdom of teams. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 1993.
3. Kostner J. Knights of the tele-roundtable. Denver, Colorado: Excalibur Press, 1993.

Published in  Journal of Product Innovation Management, September 2002, pp. 390-392

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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