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When is a team not a team?

Board meeting

When is a team not a team? Well for me, the short answer is when it is just written on an organisational chart.

We have been working extensively on performance coaching two Senior Leadership Teams both in the UK and Switzerland recently and I have become increasingly intrigued by the notion of “team” and the generic manner in which the term is used. In both cases, what is actually happening is that groups of individuals are coming together to meet and discuss issues – and they are doing that either passably well or badly – but let’s not pretend either is a team yet.

Creating and sustaining any kind of well functioning team takes a significant amount of energy and carefully considered preparation to get the foundations in place. For some leaders, or team-formers, these basic disciplines are forgotten in the pursuit of early outcomes, are neglected as awkward, or avoided as emotionally dangerous territory.

A great starting point for considering the core ingredients of a team is the book “The Wisdom of Teams” by Katzenbach and Smith. First published in 1993, it now needs to be considered and refined in the context of faster moving, matrix-driven organisational cultures but the core tenets remain sound; defining a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”.  In my opinion, this definition is worth breaking down a bit further:

  • A small number – ten or less is best in most circumstances
  • Complementary skills – diversity of thinking as well as knowledge, skills and experience
  • Common purpose – absolute shared clarity about “why” this team exists and not just a focus on “what” the team is doing
  • Common performance goals – co-creating expectation clarity, contracting with each other and co-dependants, and establishing measurable, definable standards of output
  • Common approach – agreed behaviours and preparation rituals, at a framework level, that create a context of support and challenge
  • Mutually accountable – if I fail, we all fail; your challenge is my challenge; we are completely in this together

High performance teams, sustained over long periods, are extremely rare, usually because the behavioural discipline around some or all of the above begins to fray at the edges. It takes energy and determination to maintain it, so for me, one of the first considerations a leader needs to make is: “What type of team do I need this to be?” Answering this honestly can then guide the degree of investment and expectation we have of the group. In our experience, teams fall into one of six types and whilst none of them are inherently good or bad, it is a question of creating a team culture that is fit for purpose and investing from there:

  • Transactional – low emotional investment, high emphasis on technical competency and deal-making to create individual outputs; can become political and divided
  • Affiliative – come together as and when needed around a defined need; can be creative and refreshing but with little social cohesion; agile and task-oriented
  • Family – an established social group with an interwoven back story and emotional bonds; strong and resilient but often resistant to change and bringing in outsiders unless they assimilate
  • Silo – a tight group, capable of working under pressure on defined tasks; habituated independence and isolation means they can perceive others as threats and complain of being misunderstood
  • Community – a network of like-minded people, initially with common cause, working together to solve big issues; expansive and exploratory but can lose focus and be distracted by possibility
  • Glory – a “win at all costs” grouping, driven by technical competency, prowess and externally validated success; high energy drivers but can be derailed by ego, ethics and being blind to the negative impact on those they trample over.

Teams are always in flux and maintaining any sense of high performance is a perpetual balance of internal and external pressures, individual and social variables, a context influenced by everything from geography, built environment and stock market through to motivation, clarity and energy. But one thing is for sure: writing names on an organisational chart does not make a team.

For us, this is the daily joy and challenge of helping leaders create and sustain high performance teams that are fit for purpose.


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