We form teams to increase performance through the capture of synergy – combined performance exceeding the sum of all individual members’ efforts. That intention is more likely to be achieved when there is –
- an agreed definition of “team” – one that distinguishes it from “group”
- a clear team purpose to which all members are individually and jointly committed; and
- agreed plans for developing and monitoring the presence of teamwork.
Very many workplace “teams” lack these elements and are team in name only. The effectiveness of their “teamwork” is measured only against their ability to deliver on the organisation’s Primary Task, what it must do in order to remain in business. Whether or not actual teamwork takes place is then mostly a matter of luck.
That’s like measuring a sport team’s effectiveness simply by whether or not they win games, without regard to how well they play and to whether or not they could play better.
Team functioning differs from group functioning, is capable of different outcomes and has different applications. Teams reach their potential most easily when these differences are understood.
The two most common but faulty assumptions made by managers and leaders about teams are:
- All tasks need teamwork. They don’t; some are best tackled differently.
- All work groups or project groups are teams. Not so, though they may work as teams sometimes for certain purposes.
A group is a number of persons belonging to or classed together or forming a whole. A team is something else. The differences are not subtle:
|The group’s purpose is the same as the organisation’s purpose.||Purpose is specific to what the team itself delivers as a team.|
|Measures its effectiveness indirectly by its influence on others (e.g. financial performance of the business)||Measures performance directly by assessing collective outcomes of its collective work.|
|Strong, clearly focused leader.||Shared leadership roles.|
|Discusses, decides and delegates.||Decides and completes real work together.|
|Members hold individual accountability according to their differing roles.||Members accept individual and collective accountability for the team purpose.|
|Produces individual work tasks and products.||Produces collective work outcomes.|
Teamwork is definitely easier when there are clear definitions of “team” and clarity about what constitutes an “effective” team, but what matters is not so much how these are defined as that they are defined and planned-for, so that team members know the targets and how they are to be realised. Katzenbach and Smith’s definition is helpful:
A small number of people who are committed to a common, team-specific purpose, possess complementary skills, share a common approach, systematically monitor and improve their collective performance and whose collective outputs combined, exceed those possible from the sum of the individual parts.
Large numbers of people may have trouble interacting constructively. Ten people, for example, are far more likely than thirty to successfully work through their personal, functional, and hierarchical differences to function as a team. “Small number” is intended as a pragmatic guide:
Can you convene easily and frequently?
- Can team members communicate with all other members easily and frequently?
- Are your discussions open and constructive, fully and equally engaging all members?
- Does each member understand the others’ roles and skills?
- Would more or fewer people facilitate real teamwork?
- Should your group be divided into separate teams?
Each of the complementary skills necessary for the team’s function must be actually present or potentially represented within the team. It is not necessary that every team member has all of them. The skills should be held within the team in sufficient strength to be fully available, constantly. They fall into three categories:
Technical, functional, professional expertise: Job or task skills.
Problem-solving and decision-making skills: All teams need some members with these, especially team problem-solving and decision-making skills. Other members can be helped to acquire them as the team develops.
Problem-solving and decision-making processes should be pre-determined and agreed, in advance of the need to apply them.
Interpersonal skills: Adequate levels of competence must be present for confronting and resolving conflict and differences equitably; for confidently speaking up to question, challenge, set limits, disagree and debate; for giving feedback that can be readily heard and understood; and for active listening (the ability to detect and reflect both logical and emotional content in order to test and demonstrate understanding). Active listening is the most needed and most under-represented interpersonal skill in teams and groups.
- Is there an existing balance of these three skill-sets present within the team?
- Are any skill areas or team processes missing or under-developed?
- Do members have the potential in all three categories to advance their skills to the level required by the team’s purpose and goals?
- Are the team members, individually and collectively willing to spend the time to help themselves and others learn and develop skills?
Essential management operating systems should be common to all members. These will differ from team to team but should include guidelines for and competence with such context-independent “tools” as priority-setting, planning and managing plans, problem-solving, decision-making, coaching for performance and conducting successful meetings, for example.
Monitor and improve collective performance
This function arises from methodical planning and managing of team development. Team purpose, principles, definitions and other criteria of competence are agreed on and set. At pre-determined intervals, progress is monitored against critical indicators and the plan modified in light of the results.
At longer intervals, the team development plan is evaluated and a new plan set.
Exceed the sum of individual parts
Measures of this outcome will be drawn from progress towards both the team’s Primary Task and individuals’ subjective experience of teamwork.
 Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams: Harvard Business School Press, 1993. The table, earlier, is based on their work.