When I accompany my coaching clients to team meetings I often observe not teamwork but business-as-usual conducted in a group setting. Any actual teamwork achieved is a matter of luck. Although participants may leave with good feelings because we had a good discussion, got through the agenda on time or made decisions, those outcomes don’t indicate that teamwork was present. 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.
Unlike successful sports teams, very many organisational “teams” lack the foundations and practices of teamwork. In sport, team effectiveness depends on activating plans to collaborate, cooperate and support members to maximise and realise their full potential.
Potential for organisational teamwork lies in acting on some commonsense ideas and practices that are not commonplace. Although simple, they are not necessarily easy to implement. Very many leaders find them uncomfortably challenging, or an affront to their conventions, insufficiently results-oriented, at best unglamorous and therefore unworthy of attention.
We form teams to enhance efficiency and effectiveness through the capture of synergy: performance combined that exceeds the sum of all individual members’ efforts. That intention is more likely to be achieved in the workplace when there is –
- an agreed definition of “team” 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.
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.
Two of the most common but faulty assumptions made by leaders about teams are:
- All work groups or project groups are teams. Not so, though they may work as teams sometimes for certain purposes.
- All tasks need teamwork. They don’t. Some are best tackled differently.
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 effectiveness indirectly by its influence on others.||Measures performance directly by assessing the outcomes of its collective work.|
|Effectiveness depends on strong, clearly-focused leadership.||Shares 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”, so that team members know the targets and how they are to be realised. Katzenbach and Smith’s definition provides helpful starting-points:
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. Six to ten people for example, are more likely than thirty to work successfully through their personal, functional, and role differences to function as a team. “Small number” is intended as a pragmatic guide:
Can you convene easily and frequently?
- Can members communicate with all other members easily and frequently? Do they?
- Are 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 the 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 isn’t necessary that every team member possesses all of them. Those 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. Processes and/or models for these 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 or “team tools” should be common to all members. These will differ according to need but should include guidelines for such context-independent matters such as priority-setting, brain-storming, planning and managing plans, problem-solving, decision-making and conducting successful meetings, for example.
Monitor and improve collective performance
As part of 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.