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Do Your Teams Produce Reports or Results?

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Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.

From product development to strategy to technology management, much of the work done in organizations is assigned to teams. Yet often when the output from these teams is examined, few actually generate measurable results. Instead they produce reports, recommendations, and presentations -- for a higher level decision and possible implementation. As a middle manager at a large pharmaceutical company once told me, "I've been on dozens of teams over the years, but can't recall ever being responsible for a result."

Here's a typical example: The operations manager for a financial services firm wanted to reduce the time required to set up new trading accounts for corporate clients. To make this happen, she pulled together a team of people from sales, trading, technology, operations, credit, and risk. Over the course of six months, the team (which met for an hour or two every week) analyzed the set-up cycle times, benchmarked competitors, mapped the current process, interviewed customers, and explored technology options. Based on this work, the team produced a thoughtful set of recommendations which they presented to the operations manager and other members of the executive group. After asking numerous questions, the executives were satisfied that they understood the situation, thanked the team for its excellent work, and agreed to debate the decision among themselves.

So what's wrong with this picture? The team did a good job and was recognized for it; the operations manager received the information she needed; and the executive team had a basis for its decision making. The only problem is that -- after six months of effort -- the set-up time for new corporate trading accounts had not improved one bit. Instead of results, the only outcome was a fancy slide deck.

In many organizations this oft repeated pattern becomes an accepted part of the culture. Success becomes defined as a good set of recommendations, even if there is no tangible change.

The simple alternative to the cycle is this: Challenge your teams to produce a real result and not just a report. Imagine our case if the operations manager had asked her team to actually reduce set-up times over the course of three months? Instead of studying the issues, the team might have quickly identified possible improvements, initiated experiments, collaborated with a couple of new accounts, and mobilized people who worked on setting up the trading accounts. In three months they could have tried a number of creative approaches, some of which may have produced results and all of which would have produced added knowledge about how to proceed. In addition, the team would have built momentum for implementation and significantly increased the readiness for change. Compare that to a deck!

Naturally this approach may not be appropriate for every issue. But if you really need to drive change in your organization, and you are in position to commission a team, remember that you have a choice. You can allow the team to develop recommendations and plans that others will carry forward -- or you can hold the team accountable for producing real results.

Does your organization have a culture that expects reports or results?