A team is not a team is not a team

There is no such thing as “a team.”

There are big teams and little teams; there are research teams and problem-solving teams; there are fact-finding teams and product design teams. There are functional teams and cross-functional teams. There are co-located teams and distributed teams. There are departmental teams and multi-company teams.

And there are certainly many, many books, websites, thought leaders, and trainers who offer general prescriptions for building effective teams. But today we want to focus on the things that make every team and its work different from every other team.

For the last several weeks we have been exploring the value of looking at teams – and entire organizations – as living systems. We are deliberately moving away from Industrial-Age models of leadership and management, and we are seeking lessons about team effectiveness from fields like biology, zoology, and other disciplines that focus on living systems.

During this journey of discovery we have drawn heavily on the work of Ken Thompson, author of Bioteams: High performance teams based on nature’s most successful designs. Thompson identified four principles that he believes are followed by nature’s teams (organisms of all kinds, the human immune system, bacteria, insects, and so on):

  1. Collective leadership. (that was our focus two weeks ago: “Leading the Living”);
  2. Instant messaging. (this topic was addressed last week, in “Instant Mind Meld”) ;
  3. Ecosystems (the size of a group or team has direct implications for what it can and cannot do, and what it is best at doing – that is today’s focus); and
  4. Clustering – getting the many involved by focusing on the few (we will look at this theme in more depth next week).

This week we are drawing on the science of ecosystems for guidance about how a team’s size and task structure impacts its capabilities. Thompson’s insight is that “Small is beautiful, but Big is powerful.”

What does that mean?

As Thompson points out (but not in quite this language):  for teams, size matters. A large team, or a crowd, can engage in coordinated action, but only when everyone in the crowd does essentially the same thing – whether that is excavating a hole, demonstrating during a protest march, cheering for the local soccer team, or running the Boston Marathon.

As soon as the crowd divides up, with different people or subgroups doing different things, by definition it’s not really one team any more – it’s two or three, or twenty, or dozens of smaller teams. In Thompson’s words: “… large groups enable scale, mass, reach, and range.”

In small groups, in contrast, each member can meaningfully do different things. As Thompson suggests, a small group may not be able to move a large boulder the way a crowd could, “but it could design a clever tool to make lifting that weight much easier.”

So the first way in which teams differ is in their size, and what that size enables, or constrains, the team to do (I actually believe Thompson underestimates how large groups can succeed organically through widespread distributed self-management, but that’s a topic for another article).

But there’s more. Thompson also identifies four different types of tasks that smaller teams can undertake:

  1. Individual tasks, or “solowork”;
  2. Group tasks;
  3. Partitioned tasks; and
  4. Team tasks

Individual tasks are obvious: each person does what they can do best to contribute to the overall team goal. Group tasks are those activities the group engages in as a group – all together, or concurrently. “Partitioned” tasks involve a “divide and conquer” approach in which major tasks are subdivided and then reconnected to produce an integrated whole. And team tasks are those in which everyone is doing different things, but doing them at the same time.

The lesson for team leaders is clear:  don’t look for magic answers – there is no one way to lead a team or organize its work. Take size and purpose into account, and fit task assignments to your team’s characteristics and the situational requirements.

However, there is an even more fundamental element of team composition that Thompson does not directly address: every individual on every team represents a unique combination of talents, skills, experiences, and personal values.

As my good friend Candace Fitzpatrick, the founder and president of CoreClarity, reminds me all the time, there is no one in the world exactly like me (or like you). And there will never be another you.

Candace draws on the Clifton StrengthsFinder® assessment that identifies an individual’s specific talents and preferred workstyles. And she has also taught me that each team, composed of a unique collection of individuals, has its own unique personality too.

Add it all up: a team is not a team is not a team.

That applies to size, tasks, purpose, members, and culture or personality. Yes, you can learn general principles about leadership and team building from books and training classes. But ultimately you have to do it for yourself. Team leadership is about understanding the requirements of the situation and then adapting the team’s size, structure, and culture to fit those requirements as closely as possible.

3 replies
  1. Augusto Tomas
    Augusto Tomas says:

    I believe that USA has to be proud to produce the TV-series “The A-TEAM”, to remind us that we might not need to reinvent the wheel:) all the time.
    One time, in a MIT forum, I was discussing with a Colonel from US Army, an invited speaker guest, and I put the question about what his thoughts of the “The A-TEAM” model. I was surprised that his answered was always focused on the specific skillset of each member of the A-TEAM.
    As for me the lesson of the “A-TEAM” is how a “bunch of guys” with completely different and colorful personalities can work highly effective in a team, being truthful to each one heart!
    Each member of the “A-TEAM” has its unique skillset, but the most important teamset is the Trust that bounds each member. Everyone is using his skillset, on its own way, for the common good of the team to accomplish the task.
    I would say that “The A-Team” is the perfect example for the academic model of John Adair for the perfect team balance between Task-Team-Individual.
    Nevertheless, in the real-life, the “teams” tend to neglect the Individual!, and by neglecting the Individual, the Team Spirit vanished, and the Task is made poorly.



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