In Team and Leadership

You’re Probably Not Part of a Real Team

The kind of team that can leap tall buildings in a single bound. The type of team that creates world-class solutions. Research over the last twenty years and more recently from Google suggests it’s probably not you, it’s how your team has been set up.

So why is it that so many teams fail to be productive? Setting up the foundations for a real team is no mystery, but it’s often overlooked. Just throw a bunch of people together, give them some work and they’ll be a team. But, we can do better than that. We can consciously and intentionally create fruitful conditions to nurture team development and growth.

What does it mean to be a team?

Let’s take a look at what it means to be a ‘team’ in many work environments; compare that to a systems definition of a team, and what the research says it takes to create a real team. There is a gaping void between calling something a team and being a real team.

Research suggests that people are more productive in small teams than as individuals. However, in many work environments, the word ‘team’ is applied to any group of people who work for the same boss or department. Frequently any group assembled to focus on a particular project or deliverable will be called a team. I’m sure you can think of countless examples from your own experience.

The overuse of the word ‘team’ becomes all the more painful when these groups have lacklustre productivity, no problem-solving ability, and fail to self-organise or self-manage. The team just doesn’t perform.

Can bringing the team together improve performance?

The hope of a team away day is that by helping individuals to understand each other’s attitudes and personal style as well as to develop an appreciation of the need for good communication and coordination, a high functioning team will emerge.

“I know of no evidence that supports this assumption. The opposite may be closer to the truth: The best way to get individuals to behave well in a group is to do a good job of setting up and supporting the group itself. A healthy group promotes competent member behaviour; a sick group invites all manner of bizarre individual behaviors — which, ironically, can then be used to explain the problems of the group as a whole.”

Professor Richard Hackman in his book Leading Teams

Hackman goes on to explain that to understand teams we must be prepared to think and act at the group or system level.

The team as a system

When I first heard Russell Ackoff describe a system, it immediately made me think of how a real team is structured:

“A system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts. A system is a whole that consists of parts, each of which can affect its behaviour or properties. Parts of the system are interdependent. Each part, when it affects the system, is dependent for its effect on some other part of the system. The essential or defining properties of a system are properties of the whole, which none of its individual parts has”.

Now replace ‘system’ with ‘team’ and ‘part’ with ‘people’ and read the description again.

“A team is a whole that cannot be divided into independent people. A team is a whole that consists of people, each of which can affect its behaviour or properties. People in the team are interdependent. Each person, when it affects the team, is dependent for its effect on some other person in the team. The essential or defining properties of a team are properties of the whole, which none of its individual people has”.


How can you create a real team system?

For Hackman, the following four features provide the essential basis for a real team.

  • Clear Boundaries
  • A team task
  • Authority
  • Stability

Clear boundaries

Members of a team need to know who is on the team, and who is not. Each is collectively responsible for the work of the team, and clear boundaries allow them to hold each other accountable for the team’s output.

Not only are teams physically bound (together as individuals) they are also bound culturally, and by belief. A sense of purpose and belonging derived from a shared vision or passion unites people and creates a unique and shared essence – marking them as separate from others. When teams are distributed this type of ‘boundedness’ becomes even more important because members need to feel mentally close.

From a systems perspective, a team is a whole. If you don’t have clear boundaries for a team, then members can’t know what or who the team is. For a discussion of team ‘boundedness’ as a continuum see this working paper from Insead.

A team task

To benefit from teamwork, you must give the team the work. Not individuals, but the whole team.

Unfortunately for teams, directing individuals is what managers are trained to do. It’s all too easy to forget about the team and give each person their own work. So normal is it for managers to do this, that it usually goes unseen and unchallenged. Compensation policies further drive this behaviour by assessing and rewarding individuals within a ‘team’.

Breaking work up into person sized chunks removes teamwork. The pull to work alone is however understandable, from a young age we are trained to work alone. At school, sharing your work with someone else was called cheating, not teamwork.

If we look back at the systems perspective, Ackoff (paraphrased) says;

People in the team are interdependent. Each person, when it affects the team, is dependent for its effect on some other person in the team.

By giving a team individual work items, you remove dependency on other parts of the system. Manage the team system, give the whole problem to the team and let them work out how to solve it. After all, that’s why you formed a team right?

Authority to manage their own process

Teams need a clear and explicit understanding of their authority to act, allowing the team to self-organise. There may be some anxiety for both the team and managers as the authority to act is transferred from managers to the team. All the more reason to make clear and transparent the extent and limits of the team’s authority.

There are four distinct areas that any team must consider how;

  1. to execute the work
  2. monitor and manage the work
  3. design the team
  4. and what direction the team will take, or what problem it must solve

The culture of the company and context of the work may affect how authority for each of these areas is decided. One key area that a team must have authority over if they are to be productive, is their process and how they will work together. As experts tasked with solving a problem, the team are accountable for the solution, and should own the process of getting there.

Team stability

Teams with stable membership tend to perform better. Over time teams develop shared routines and norms – a common language, high levels of trust and a shared commitment to the team. The stability of the team also seems to favour the emergence of collective intelligence, “a distinct higher-order pattern of interrelated activities” grounded in and emerging from “individual actions” (Weick and Roberts, 1993: 374)

As with all human social systems, teams develop in their own unique way. Research suggests that training together and developing a set of explicit team norms at the beginning of team development, can help to accelerate the process of building a cohesive team (Moreland, Argote and Krishnan, 1998).

Teams should be cautious however, that their ‘team’ ways of solving problems don’t become the ‘one true way’ or over routinised (Berman et al., 2002). It’s also possible, that with increasing team stability members can gradually become more isolated from outside sources of information and new ideas. Additionally, teams may become hostile to information or ways of working that threaten to disrupt their predictable work process and patterns of behaviour (Katz, 1982).

In this way, team stability can be seen on a continuum. Sometimes it’s good to bring fresh eyes and ideas into a team, but not so often that the team never really becomes functional. You will have to decide, based on the problem to be solved how often to re-team.

To Conclude

Hopefully, you can now understand teams as systems and begin to think about how to act at the group or system level. Start by paying attention to the foundations of ‘boundedness’, the authority to act, team task and an appropriate level of stability.

This article was originally published on Medium by BeLiminal Partner Eben Halford.


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