In Defense of Lencioni

by Carol Anderson, Featured Contributor

I REALL LIKE the “Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” I like the story approach that provides context, I like the short explanation at the end, and the simple model just resonates with me.

book_searching_for_answers_400_clr_12525I was caught off guard when a colleague whom I respect said that she would not use Lencioni’s training materials because it was not based on solid research. She prefers to use Covey. So for the last week, I’ve been noodling that, and trying to figure out how I feel about it.

Let me preface all of this by saying (again) that I am skeptical about business books. Too often I have seen people take up a banner of “7 ways to this,” or “5 things that make you,” only to find that the simple answer they thought they found really wasn’t very simple.

That didn’t work, so let’s try the next bestseller’s method, and Voila! You get “flavor of the month.”

And my colleague is right that it really does come down to “research.”

What Really Is Business Research?

stick_figure_browsing_open_folder_400_clr_6728But business research is interesting though – some might say it is an oxymoron. We learn about research in graduate school. We learn about qualitative and quantitative research, and we learn that we must clearly understand the variables so that we can generalize (or not) the conclusion of the research beyond the initial study. An example from my graduate studies in education would be that a study is conducted in School A, but you really can’t generalize the results outside of school A unless the variables in School B are identical to those in School A. Not much chance of that happening in a world of we people.

And business certainly is a world of people, each with their own background, experience, knowledge, and attitude. Peters and Waterman started the popular business book trend with “In Search of Excellence” in 1982. It was research-based, although my professor would frown on heading into qualitative research without an active hypothesis, which is ostensibly what Peters, then a McKinsey consultant, did. The research may have been solid, but the application of the research was over-generalized as we searched for easy answers to complex business problems.

Then, Jim Collins’ major research project unfolds with companies that make the leap from Good to Great. In my last organization, the CEO challenged every leader to read the book. That’s it. Just read it. So she talked about “getting people off the bus,” and “Level 5 leadership.” She challenged us to demonstrate personal humility and professional will, but never really defined it. I can’t say she modeled it, though, because all of her stories related her own successes. Oh, and Human Resources took issue with “getting people off the bus,” as the CEO neglected to mention “in the right way.” At the end of the day, all the humility and will overshadowed the fact that she didn’t have the leadership skill to succeed. That judgment was made by the Board.

As several of the Good to Great companies bit the dust, Collins popped up with “How the Mighty Fall.” Ah, if all the Good to Great stuff is there, be careful not to demonstrate hubris or deny the risks. Well, that explains it!

Did Collins do great research? I suspect he did. I suspect Tom Peters did as well. There is scholarly research available on Covey’s effectiveness; I didn’t find any on Lencioni.

The Danger of Accepting Business Research at Face Value

The difference between academic research and popular business book research, from my perspective, is not with the research, but with the reader. Academics are taught to be discerning when using research.

In contrast, popular business books continue to be adapted to our growing ADHD mentality, and just give us the gist. We throw out flywheels, blue oceans, FISH (literally – they encourage you to throw fish), habits, dysfunctions and other buzzwords that hang around until the next big thing.

In our busy world, we look for easy solutions, without clearly understanding the problem, and popular business books fly off the shelf into executive bookshelves. The complexity of our business world today demands organically grown solutions – solutions that come from within the organization, based on clear problems identified by the organization. But we just don’t have time.

Or do we?

Someone once asked the question, if you don’t have time to do it the right way, why is it that you have time to do it over if it doesn’t work?

Mistakes in strategy execution are costly. Not only are you spending precious resources unwisely, but you are confusing the heck out of the people who have to execute the strategy.

Think of it this way. Introducing a premise read in a popular business book is the same as introducing a strategy. You are generalizing the results of the study to your particular situation. Maybe the variable are close; probably not.

Business books are not inherently bad

figure_turning_custom_page_14411Here’s another way to think about it, and one that might be more successful (this is my hypothesis, not research-based).

Read the book. Books offer great ideas and concepts.

Discuss the parallels of the premise of the book with your organization collectively. The more people involved in the dialogue, the more comprehensive the analysis. This is where your human resources partner can help – they (should) know how to facilitate large group change projects.

Discern what is helpful and what does not fit. Consider the implications of using some of the book’s premise within the context of your own strategy.

Carefully evaluate what worked and what did not. Make adjustments. Learn about your organization. Grow together and build organically.

Back to Lencioni

I think that my affection for The Five Dysfunctions is because I have lived it in two different organizations – exactly as described. Does that mean it should be taken literally, as solid research?

Probably not. But I never really did think of it as anything but an author providing me with words and validation of something I was seeing. That is helpful to me. What I do with it is up to me.

Oh, and having teams dialogue the concepts he presents really generates healthy dialogue. I think that’s a good thing.

Editor’s Note: This Article was originally published on @the intersection of learning & performance and is featured here with permission.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. Carol,
    I’ve read all the books mentioned and passed them on to my team. I kept a library of books in hard copy and digital for them read and listen to. It’s about creating a learning environment – like in education one teacher or method may resonate more effectively with an individual than another. The Lenconi books are good for that as are a number of others. They allow us to see things from a different perspective and in some cases offer solutions we had not thought of or can modify to fit our particular circumstances.

    • Great point, Garry. It’s about creating a learning environment. In order to create that environment, reflection is necessary. Those who take only empirical evidence to explain human behavior will miss the point. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Hi Carol,
    The book “5 Dysfunctions of a Team”, was just recently recommended to me by my new “big boss” at work and I am patiently awaiting it’s delivery from Amazon.

    Regarding business books, I have always seen the value in them if only to learn 1 new fact/tactic that I can use in my business.

    If we don’t learn something everyday, it doesn’t pay to even get out of bed.