What is a Team?

This seems like a simple question but one I ask every time we reach this topic in a training or coaching discussion.

What is your definition of a team?

Quite often the initial response someone gives is something like:

“Several people with a common goal”

While a common goal is important if a team doesn’t have a shared goal than they are simply a group of people working together. If their goals are not aligned and they have different interpretations or understanding of the goal it can result in conflicts between the members. It then becomes less likely that they achieve success.

A common goal is like the necessary condition in mathematics. A necessary condition is required for something else to happen but does not guarantee that something else happens. In the same way, a common goal is necessary, but not enough to make a group of people team.

Let me illustrate this with an example. If you travel on a plane or a train you and all the other passengers have the same goal – to reach your destination they are not necessarily s team.

If you search the internet you can find different definitions of a team. The one I like the most is from Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith’s book The Wisdom of Teams.

A team is 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.

Team size

More people on a team means more expertise, experience, and different point of view. If the team has to solve complex problems a diverse team gives them a better chance to generate more ideas and evaluate better potential solutions or next steps. 

But more people usually means more effort is required to ensure the team is cohesive. Personalities can clash and sometimes making decisions and reaching consensus may take a lot more effort.

One way to illustrate that is with a simple mathematics formula. You can calculate the number of so-called communication channels in the team using the following one

C = N * (N-1) / 2

where

C – communication channels

N – number of people in the team

This may seem complex but it isn’t. It simply says that each team member has to communicate with all the other team members and that communication is a two-way process.

If a team consists of 3 people, then the number of communication channels is 3* (3-1)/ 2 = 3. So if you are part of a three-person team, you have to communicate with the other two members and they have to talk as well.

If we decide to add two more people to this team, making it a five-person team. The communication channels will be 5 * (5-1) / 2 = 10. We didn’t even double the team, but the communication channels are now 3 times greater than before.

This is one reason why adding more people doesn’t always mean that the job will be done faster – in fact, the opposite can be the case as additional communication is required.

Complementary skills

Having members with different skills on the team means that the team is able to create more value and can solve more complex problems. This is simply not possible if we have a group of people with a narrow skill set. They may be very good at solving a challenge, that requires a particular expertise but will struggle to resolve a more complex one.

For example, if we have to produce let’s say a mobile app we typically need different skills and experts to be part of the team – UX, developers, QA, etc. If those experts are not part of one team it may result in longer development time as communication across teams can take more time and effort.

The key here is that team members need each other to achieve success and meet expectations. Everyone has a seat at the table as the skills that he or she brings in are necessary to produce what is expected from the team as a whole.

We simply can not win if everyone is not committed.

Commitment

Commitment is important as every team member should be focused on team success and do the best they can to help the team achieve it.

Sometimes this is easier said than done.

Commitment to a common set of performance goals is important so that the team is aligned with the expected results the determinants of success.

Commitment to a common approach is important so the team understands the process, how they will work together, how they will manage their tasks and communicate. This commitment to a common approach is also applicable to developing the team norms of what will be acceptable and what will not.

If the team is not aligned in the three key areas (purpose, performance goals, and approach), and not committed to this shared understanding it may result in a lack of synchronization, conflicts, and leadership battles as everyone may have their own ideas about how the team will work together.

Mutual accountability

Mutual accountability is also an essential aspect and a clear indicator of mutual engagement and commitment.

The overall success of the team depends on everyone’s performance and being accountable for their tasks and responsibilities. Of course, when a team member needs help, they need to feel comfortable that the other team members will support and help them.

You can not simply delegate accountability responsibility upwards to your boss.

Summary

A successful team is built on a foundation of shared goals, communication, accountability, and support. Teamwork has never been easy, and in recent years it has become much more complicated. As teams become increasingly global, virtual, and project-driven using a systematic approach to building and evaluating your teams’ success can make the difference between success and failure.

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