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Thinking About Teams

By Geoff Powter on December 5th, 2016

Mr. Jackman, our Little League coach that summer so long ago, stood in front of us, shook his head in frustration, and gave us one of his familiar nuggets of motivation. “Look, you guys,” he said, pacing in front of the dugout, “we’re never going to win unless you guys start acting like a team…”

It may have sounded like a Hollywood platitude, but, somehow, it actually worked. We all nodded, as though we knew exactly what he meant and what we consequently had to do, kicked our cleats in the dust, and just tried harder. We may not have won too many more games, but somehow we were more of a team from that point on.

I wish our work with teams these days could always be that easy. But modern corporate teams are, to say the very least, a whole lot more complex than a group of underperforming 11-year-olds. (For that matter, these days, a team of 11-year-olds is also a whole lot more complex!)

We understand the nature of teams and teaming a whole lot better these days. We question the value of teams more. And we don’t quite have the same appreciation of leaders like Mr. Jackman.

Here are a few thoughts for you to think about when you start to think about bringing a team together, or when you pick up the phone to get some help with a team you’re struggling with.

Is a team the best structure to address the work?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that teams are often brought together because leaders simply assume that a team creates better results than individuals working alone do. Don’t count on it.

Yes, teams working well can produce charmed outcomes, but working well isn’t the default outcome of teaming. To function best, teams need the right people, brought together for the right reasons, at the right time, with the right supports in place. Natural complexities of communication and coordination within every group can get in the way of even the best intentions, and leaders need to anticipate these complexities. Teams need a clear purpose with defined boundaries and roles, and it’s never enough to simply bring a group of people together and tell them they’re a team. They have to know what being a team means and requires, and both of those conditions need to make sense to the team members.

What kind of team is best?
Sorry for continuing the sports analogy, but I’m a guy, so bear with me. Just as on sports fields, there are many different kinds of teams in the corporate world which require different structures, skills and levels of commitment. As a leader, are you looking for a baseball team, with all players on one field at the same time, working through different roles in hopeful harmony? Or do you need a football team, with different units that have different purposes, who don’t share the field? Are you willing to have a star player that gets most of the glory, but can alienate the players on the bench? The different expectations can be confusing to team members who may be looking for belonging and purpose that they don’t find unless opportunities and limitations are laid out. People have to understand if they’re going to get to score goals or not.

What size of team is best?
Bigger is rarely better. Yes, it makes sense to try and include everyone involved in a project, and to capitalize on resources, but as more people are added to a team, the complexity of the relational links that need to be created and maintained can increase exponentially, and people will quickly default to tribal subgroups that defeat the purpose of the team.

Our rule of thumb is that no team should have more than 10 members.

Who is on the team?
One of the most surprising pieces of recent research about teams revealed how often people on work teams cannot accurately say who’s on their team: Only 10% of the teams surveyed could name all the members of the teams they were assigned to. This can shock leaders who feel they have made the purpose and membership of the group perfectly clear, but it’s wise not to ignore the possibility that the teams you’ve created may be less cohesive than you think.

Who is your team playing against?
Again with the sports, sorry — but it can be surprising how often people carry competition into any teaming initiative. If you’re thinking that creating a team will result in harmony and collaboration, be prepared to be disappointed. The creation of teams often generates unintended silos, and if the team you create is too large, those silos will form within the team. The team leader needs to make sure that competition isn’t intrinsically built into the structure of the team — unless it’s competition you want.

How will your team be a team?
All of the above will help you define how your team is a team, and not just a group. A name is not enough. Be planful. Set boundaries and expectations. Celebrate unique achievements. Get clear commitments to shared success from everyone.

And like Mr. Jackman, let all the team members clearly understand just how much better everyone will do if they all work together.