The Straightforward Wisdom Behind Functional Teams

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April 30 , 2024  |  By Stephen Caldwell

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Note: This is part of a series of Walton Insights reviews of classic books on business and leadership. 

Several years ago, I caught a nice break when a friend hired me to help with a project for one of his corporate clients, and the assignment included a trip to San Francisco for two days of meetings.

During that time, the client brought in Patrick Lencioni, who lives in that area and worked for the client as a consultant. Lencioni spoke briefly to the small group of leaders about the project they were working on, and then he asked and answered questions during one of the most insightful discussions of that type I’ve ever been in.

I left the room smarter than when I arrived, which didn’t take much work on Lencioni’s part. But I felt confident that was also the case for everyone else, and most of them were veteran executives for the most successful quick-serve chicken restaurant on the planet. (Hint: they aren’t open on Sundays.)

At the time of that meeting, I had long-since read at least two of Lencioni’s books, The Five Temptations of a CEO and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, so I was familiar with him and his work as president of The Table Group. And it was interesting to witness how he brought ideas and insights, including many that weren’t covered in his books, into this consulting session.

I should not have been surprised that Lencioni delivered, because his books deliver.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which came out in 2002, made my list of business classics worth revisiting because it provides a clear, practical guide to addressing one of the most pressing challenges all businesses face: how to get teams to function more effectively.

Lencioni wrote The Five Dysfunctions, like all his early books, as a “business fable,” which is a bit of a misnomer because fables are short stories that typically use animals as the characters. Lencioni writes fictional stories using a different sort of animal as his characters – executives.

In this case, Kathryn Peterson, the new CEO of DecisionTech, inherits a dysfunctional leadership team and needs to get them back on the right track to success. The storytelling is good, so don’t skip that part. Then he drops in a non-fiction section that describes the model just in case you didn’t get it from the story.

The model is straightforward. When you read the five dysfunctions, in fact, it seems obvious that they would be trouble spots for a team: the absence of trust, a fear of conflict, a lack of commitment, an avoidance of accountability, and an inattention to team results. If you’ve been on a team, you’ve experienced some of those dysfunctions. And if you’ve been on a dysfunctional team, you’ve experienced them all.

By laying out the problems so clearly, Lencioni sets the stage for his prescriptions. So the book really is about how teams can build trust, work through conflict, show commitment, maintain accountability, and focus on team results.

One knock on the book is that the model and the solutions he offers aren’t validated by much research, but the book’s staying power – and the success of his consulting and workshops based on the book – indicate that conclusions and solutions based primarily on in-the-field experiences can be spot on.

And if you really don’t care for the fiction approach to business books, you might read The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. Published in 2012, this was Lencioni’s first non-fiction book, and it is sort of like a greatest hits album, summarizing and bringing together the big ideas and models from many of his other books. The first section is mostly a recap of The Five Dysfunctions.

Either way, add Lencioni to your must-read list. You’ll be smarter when you put the books down than when you picked them up. And if you apply what you learn, your teams will be more effective, as well.

Stephen CaldwellStephen Caldwell is Chief Word Architect for WordBuilders, Inc., where he spends most of his time helping clients discover, craft, and share the messages of their hearts. In addition to writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and on numerous book projects, he has developed leadership and functional training for Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.