A Team Without a Leader?

As I approach the end of the year, I have spent the past six months working in a number of leaderless teams for the first time in many years. Most of my career I have been part of teams with formal leaders or been in the role of team or project lead. As I have reflected on the difference between a leaderless team and a team with a formal leader, I have seen some significant differences between the two that directly impact the results.

Teams with formal leaders tend to be more efficient in making decisions. The leader drives the conversation and decision making to keep the team on track. Team meetings typically stay within their allotted time, follow a pre-defined agenda, and usually reach decisions during their meetings. This formalized structure has stifled idea generation and collaboration. In addition, there are many offline conversations that tend to occur since not everyone may agree with the decision. Since the leader typically is in management or in a formal leadership position on the team, many on the team will not voice their opinions as strongly as they otherwise would for fear of ‘looking bad’ in the eyes of the leader. Is working on a team without a leader a better way to generate ideas and make decisions?

With my leaderless teams, decisions take more time since we work to build consensus. I have learned patience over the last few months working on teams where we have worked towards team decisions. However, with my leaderless team, decisions have more buy-in from the team members and ultimately, have resulted in better decisions and better ideas generated.

The meetings without a formal leader tend to also be a bit more ‘lively’ in that there is extensive debate, discussion, and collaboration. The end result for these leaderless teams, is creative, meets the business requirements, and has buy in from the team.

As a product manager, I work in many teams. As I reflected over the last week on the various teams….my thought is teams should not always have a formal leader. Should executive level management and individual contributors be on the same team when extensive collaboration and idea generation are required? Should teams start without a leader, build consensus, and then present to executive management? Is a project manager a leader? Or should the role of the project manager be ‘assigned’ by the team to one person? The make-up of teams is critical to the success of the organization. As we go into 2015, we should all consider the roles within our various teams to balance efficiency, decision making, and idea generation.