My Theory of Teams and Teamworking

The word “team” is really a metaphor.

It’s now so ubiquitous that its sporting origin is almost forgotten, but one of the reasons we struggle to build team identity and spirit is because we have set the wrong expectations about what’s possible with our workplace team.

This is why the many haphazard ways to build team identity, spirit and generally improve happiness are so clunky and ineffective. These range from the boss making the tea, or buying donuts on a Friday, to away days on assault courses or games involving building bridges across rivers with only a few sheets of A4 and a half dozen paperclips.

The problem I have with all of this is twofold:

  • It’s used in place of proper management
  • It confuses two entirely different types of teams which exist in the workplace.

Two types of workplace team

I split teams into the following two broad types, borrowing nomenclature from UK parliamentary committees: select teams and standing teams (or workgroups).

A select team is a temporary team brought together to achieve a specific purpose.  Examples of this are sports teams, or project development teams.

They are characterised by:

  • Time bound (temporary), at some point they will be disbanded, either having achieved the objective (a project team) or at the end of an agreed time period (most sports teams)
  • Team members share the same objective (i.e. to score the most goals, or implement the new system)
  • Usually all team members are highly skilled and reasonably high achieving (otherwise they would not be selected to be part of the team)
  • Team members have differing expertise, different roles, and often different experiences (such as a football team has one goalkeeper, one left-back etc.)
  • The team usually has the same limited membership throughout its lifespan

A standing team is a team which always exists and provides a service, such as a team of business consultants, carpenters, accountants, nurses, or computer programmers.

They are characterised by:

  • Open-ended.  There is no specific date when the team will be disbanded
  • Team members have different objectives (i.e. to tend different patients, or manage different accounts)
  • Team members have a variety of skills and effectiveness.  Some will be new, some low achieving, some very skilled
  • Team members share the same (or similar) expertise and roles (all are qualified accountants, or all are Java programmers)
  • The team evolves over time as members leave and new members arrive

Providing teambuilding and motivation in the case of the former is reasonably simple.

The clear statement of common objective on its own will more or less do the job, assuming it’s realistic and assuming there is some reasonable management. There is always room to assist in building relationships across the team but this should be carefully managed so that those who cannot go bowling and get tanked up are not to made to feel like they’re not team players.

The problem with most workplaces is that most teams are actually standing teams, not select teams, and most managers will look for the shortcuts to build morale – usually borrowing from those things which only really work with select teams.

In the case of standing teams, it’s quite simply a much harder job to create a good team environment.

This will involve things like:

  • Building trust
  • Defining shared values
  • Lots of open communication
  • Support and development programmes
  • As much joint working as possible
  • Shared experiences
  • Strong (fair) line management

It will also involve some changing of expectations – a standing team will not come together as easily as a select team, and it’s important to approach it differently.



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