- Definition of a Team
- Typical Reasons for Failure
- The Team Mesa
- The Paradoxes
- Being a Team Player
- Decision-Making Methods
- The Key to Success
Since the late 1990s, I have been researching teamwork and working directly with teams to improve their “measurables,” the term I use for typical metrics like output, costs, quality, and job and customer satisfaction. Two points have become clear through this combination of learning and doing:
- Though researchers continue to clarify details, there is relative consensus about core management practices that will improve the measurables of any team of humans.
- A small percentage of managers actually know and adopt these better practices.
Because of this, “management guru” books and consultants for the most part repackage those practices over and over, taking advantage of the second point to make money without increasing the adoption rate. My Radical Agilist Blog has covered both the core practices and the reasons they are not adopted.
This page lays the groundwork for all of my other writings, including the Full Scale agile™ site, by addressing basic misunderstandings the majority of managers seem to have about teamwork. That starts with what exactly a “team” is.
Definition of a Team
There are a lot of work groups that call themselves “teams,” but they really are not. Descriptions of a true team vary among the experts, but here are some common elements:
- Small size, perhaps five to 12 people.
- A concrete sense of purpose.
- Specific, challenging goals.
- Spelled-out rules for interacting with each other and carrying out team duties.
- High levels of cooperation required for each member to complete their work.
- Clear understanding of who decides what.
- Mutual accountability—team members’ job satisfaction, performance measures, and/or compensation are based, at least in part, on the team’s performance.
Among business researchers, perhaps the most repeated definition of a team is from The Wisdom of Teams, a book first published by the Harvard Business School:
“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.”
The main alternative to a true team has been called a “work group”: that is, a group of people bound together by an organizational chart or other artificial means, but not meeting one or more of the elements of a team. Unlike team members, members of a work group all do the same job, have different performance goals, are accountable only to themselves and their boss, and so on. In some situations, a work group is the most efficient organization, such as in sales “teams” whose members compete with each other for bonuses. If you think your team is really a work group, and “teambuilding” is proposed, raise the question as to whether it will add value. Perhaps instead the group only needs to address specific issues, perhaps with help from my “Troubleshooting” techniques.
Researchers have spent decades digging into the science behind teamwork. In doing so they have identified what high-performing, low-conflict teams have that others do not, the key elements of successful teams:
- Mission—A statement of purpose that excites interest while supporting the company’s mission.
- Goals—Three to five measurable goals that quantify progress toward the mission within a specific time frame.
- Values List or Code of Conduct—Rules created by the team to reduce workplace behaviors that hurt team performance and job satisfaction.
- Team Procedures—Procedures for handling the team’s administrative tasks.
- Process Documentation—Written descriptions and/or diagrams of how the team performs its daily tasks, for use in quality and cost control and process improvement.
- Role Definitions—Clear descriptions of each member’s role in both everyday work and team procedures.
- Project Plans—Formal task breakdowns and schedules for meeting the team’s goals and/or project requirements.
- Teamwork Skills—Skills in group communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and decision-making.
- Incentives—Rewards for achieving team goals (not necessarily financial rewards).
- Visibility—A method to ensure upper managers become aware of the team’s accomplishments.
My Full Scale agile site walks you through putting these in place. Though intended for creating fully self-directed, agile teams, with a few modifications even traditionally led teams can benefit from the process.
Typical Reasons for Failure
Efforts to create true teams often fail. Your team can avoid some of the pitfalls by keeping in mind the typical reasons this happens:
- A failure to adopt or create formal approaches to running the team or doing its work.
- Partial implementation of packaged systems like Six Sigma or Scrum, leaving out parts the team doesn’t realize are critical to success.
- The team does not have or develop the needed range of technical and personal skills.
- Team members cannot handle conflict constructively; they do not agree upon and follow good team behaviors.
- Team members fear that individual recognition and/or challenges will be lost.
- The manager does not share sufficient information or decision-making authority (or, at the other extreme, shares too much, too soon).
- The manager does not provide enough resources, such as meeting or planning time, training, equipment, or needed personnel.
- The team does not develop supportive relationships with other teams, functional managers, senior managers, and other stakeholders.
- Members assume that because previous teamwork efforts failed, this one will, too—not recognizing that those failures may have been due to incorrectly formed teams or ineffective training (such as “teambuilding” exercises) rather than a problem with teamwork itself.
The Team Mesa
Most teams do not magically get along with each other from the start—if they did, every new sports team would be a threat to beat the league champions in its first year. Becoming a true team takes time, and sometimes things get worse before they get better. New teams have a lot to figure out, and you cannot expect problems that developed over months or years in an existing group to go away in a few weeks.
This was captured in a model of team development sometimes called, “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.” Supposedly team measures followed a curve that rose a bit during “Forming,” dropped below the starting point during Storming, and climbed through the final phases to high levels. Though this model from 1965 might be useful for thinking about what your team is like, few if any teams go through these stages one after the other. Some parts of your team development will happen unevenly, in “fits and starts.” For example, you can go quickly from nobody thinking about a teamwork issue to it becoming a cause of conflict, even in well-performing teams.
Furthermore, research shows that typical teams go through much of their change in a short period closer to the middle of the group’s life span than the beginning. In project teams, for example, this happens near the halfway point in a project schedule regardless of how long the project is. The performance “curve” is more like approaching and climbing a cliff on the side of a mesa (a flat-topped hill):
For roughly the first half of the project, the team struggles with varying degrees of conflict and tries without success to increase measures such as output quantity, quality, or customer satisfaction. For reasons not yet fully understood by science, the team then comes together, often making agreements that would have been helpful earlier such as Team Charters or process agreements. By virtue of having worked together a while, they also develop unwritten rules about how to get along, usually without even discussing them. After that the journey is much smoother. Of course, if the team does not climb the mesa, it falls apart or never reaches high performance.
If the team stays together long enough, it may get to the other side of the mesa. In danger of slipping down, it may need to revisit some of its previous steps to maintain top performance and stay on the mesa top.
What if your team has no end date? “When there is no deadline or it is ambiguous, groups do not establish a pace for their work and tend to flounder,” two Harvard University researchers have written. In other words, the team never climbs the mesa.
Based on the scientific findings, I use these four phases instead of the old model:
- Approaching the Mesa
- Climbing the Mesa
- Enjoying the View
- Avoiding a Fall
A key goal of methods like those in Full Scale agile is to move the mesa to the left—that is, to do the things that help teams perform better, sooner. Any systematic, proactive approach to your team’s performance is better than none.
No two teams will approach the mesa the same way in terms of the problems they face. Various performance measures will shift somewhat up and down in each phase.The point is, if things get bad for a while during your team development, that does not mean the team or method is failing.
The next few sections detail traits and behaviors more likely at each phase. But again, any can appear at any time during the life of a team.
Approaching the Mesa
- At first feelings are generally positive, though cautious.
- Everyone is on their best behavior.
- Everyone is trying to figure out what is going on.
- People are testing the boundaries of their relationships with other team members and the boundaries of their jobs as team members.
- People are trying to figure out their roles, both formal and informal.
Especially when true teamwork is a major shift in the way a group and its manager have been doing things, people will naturally resist the parts of teaming they do not like. This resistance may come out in behaviors such as these:
- Some people will hide their normal styles of communication, perhaps becoming more outspoken or more guarded.
- The tendency to work separately remains.
- Conflicts may arise, confusion about roles and responsibilities abound, procedures and boundaries are tested, and there may be lots of blaming others (especially of the team manager).
- The full range of people’s personalities begins to come out, both good traits and bad.
- Some members, if not most, think about leaving the team, even if that means leaving the job.
- Productivity and morale stay flat, and in the case of restructured teams, may even drop below pre-teaming levels.
- Managers wonder A) if they have done the right thing, and B) how to look like they personally are accomplishing anything.
Climbing the Mesa
When teams take the time to get better organized:
- Some teams experience an “a-ha” moment, in which they realize why they have not been collaborating easily.
- Roles become clearer.
- Resistance to teaming drops as members begin to see the benefits.
- Conflicts, internal and with managers or stakeholders, decline.
- Information is more freely shared within the team and between the team and stakeholders.
- Members begin melding individual strengths and weaknesses.
- One or more informal leaders may emerge. This must be monitored to ensure they do not become de facto team leaders.
- Productivity begins to rise well above pre-teaming levels.
- A strong team identity develops. This is mostly good, but it must be monitored to prevent over-protectiveness of team turf, hiding of underperforming members, etc.
- The team begins to document more, creating such controls as task-tracking systems or standard operating procedures.
Enjoying the View
- The team achieves optimal levels of productivity, efficiency, and quality.
- There is a strong sense of community within the team, of members being responsible to and for each other.
- People are comfortable admitting weaknesses and asking for help.
- Taking on new tasks or objectives becomes routine.
- Member thinking becomes broader.
- Both teaming competence and commitment are high.
Avoiding a Fall
If teams do not take steps to continuously improve:
- Productivity and morale level off, and may begin to dip if issues related to this stage are not addressed.
- The team may become too inward-focused, hurting communication with other teams or individuals.
- The members require new challenges and related training to stay energized.
- The team can become set in its ways, resisting new ideas or challenges.
- Turnover and new hires may reduce the sense of team identity and cause tension between remaining and new members.
- Revision of team agreements is often necessary to keep the team moving forward.
Teamwork creates some personal tensions you will have to overcome for the team to succeed. One researcher called them “paradoxes,” defining a paradox as “a constant struggle between apparently opposing values.”
- Being an individual versus being a team member—Each team member has to express strengths as an individual to create the skill mix the team needs, but at the same time you have to put the team’s needs first. As one worker put it to a researcher, “In a team, everyone has to give up a bit of himself or herself to make it work.” The solution to this paradox lies in finding just the right amount to give. A team member put it bluntly: “You have to be able to let go of your own ego. You have to relinquish ideas to the team—let the ideas be the team’s, not yours. This is tough.”
- Being your job title versus being a team member—You have to find a balance between doing what the team needs you to do and the other demands of your job. You should find ways to communicate with both your manager and your team members when you feel pressure from this paradox and work together to resolve it. In short, teamwork must become part of your job.
- Trusting versus earning trust—You are being asked to take a pretty big leap of faith with each other: to blindly believe that everyone is going to give this teaming thing a fair shot, give you a fair shot, and communicate openly but respectfully when things go wrong. But our tendency is to trust people only as they earn that trust. “Trust” means the willingness to assume that the other person is going to behave the way you would in a given situation—or if they do not, that they will behave as they do with the intent of helping the team. Formal approaches like those in Full Scale agile try to “jump-start” that trust by setting ground rules that are clear to everybody. If you know what the other people expect, and they know what you expect, that is a big step down the road to trust.
- Liking versus respecting—Obviously, we all prefer to spend time with people we like. But in a work group, the chances are that you will not like some people personally. That is perfectly normal, and there is nothing morally wrong with not liking someone. If you let that personal dislike affect your ability to work together, however, you can sink the team. For the team to succeed, you must learn to focus on your own behavior as a team member in deciding how to act with that person at work. Any other thoughts should only determine whether you choose to spend time with them outside of work.
- Reducing conflict vs. standing up for your ideas—If the team cannot bring out different opinions—no matter how different—there is no point in having a team. The whole idea here is to get different perspectives working together. So if you are not willing to put those perspectives out there… well, why waste your time with teamwork development? Of course, when ideas are quite different, things can get heated. Because most people like to avoid conflict, that creates this paradox. But teaming experts are unanimous in saying that many high-performing teams have confrontations at some point in their growth. The trick is to find a way to handle those that will get ideas out without damaging future teamwork. Helping you do that is another goal of teamwork coaching.
- Being yourself vs. doing what is best for the team—Most of the points above can be summarized by this one. The idea is to try to reach a happy medium between the way you usually do things and the way the team needs them done. For example:
- If you are shy compared to most people, and do not make yourself speak up when you have an idea or disagree with someone, you may hurt the team.
- On the other hand, if you tend to correct people a lot, or do so less politely than most people do, you may hurt the team.
- If you tend to think faster than most, and you try to hurry others along, you may kill the open exchange of ideas, and you may hurt the team.
- If you like to think things through to the last detail more than most people do, and insist that the team do so on every issue, you may hurt the team.
- If you work fast or get bored easily, and choose to take on the majority of team tasks, you may hurt the team.
- On the other hand, if you feel overwhelmed and therefore never volunteer for any team tasks, you may hurt the team.
Despite these last two points, it is okay for some people to take on more tasks than others, and that will happen. The point is to spread the work around as much as possible to help everyone feel accountable to the team.
If you let yourself do these behaviors and the team begins to break down, do not go around blaming the other people. It is your fault, too.
Being a Team Player
Every team, from baseball teams to boards of directors, needs people to fill roles that go beyond their official positions. Successful sports teams have players who step into critical unofficial roles: one who encourages the team, one who is willing to take risks when the team is down, even a team joker to “keep people loose.” A business team will perform better if people take on unofficial roles that help teams operate more smoothly.
Managers often abuse the term “team player,” really meaning the person should “shut up and go along with the team (or me).” Doing so harms the team by losing the value of multiple perspectives.
Fortunately, in true teams there are many different ways to be a “team player.” You do not have to be all things to all people. Instead, you have to adapt your personal style in ways that help the team. It is vital for everyone to participate to the fullest degree, any way they can, if your team is to succeed.
So let’s look at the different ways you can be a team player. The basics are pretty obvious: follow the team’s values and procedures; contribute your ideas; take on team tasks; do not bad-mouth the team or its members behind their backs. Beyond that, there are a number of informal “team player” roles from which you can choose one or two that fit your personal style, including:
- Challenger—Be willing to disagree openly with the team, and push the team to raise its goals and standards.
- Collaborator—Work outside your usual tasks to help other team members, by providing training or assistance with their tasks using skills you possess.
- Communicator—Share information openly and listen well.
- Contributor—Volunteer for tasks and complete them.
- Encourager—Praise and actively support members.
- Expeditor—Encourage participation of less assertive members by asking questions of them or inviting their help on your tasks.
- Harmonizer—Mediate differences and keep discussions focused on behaviors instead of bad motives.
- Organizer—Keep the team on track regarding its work.
- Promoter—Serve as a team spokesperson with stakeholders.
- Specialist—Keep the team up-to-date on information or skills it needs in a particular area.
- Standard-bearer—Keep the group focused on its values, objectives, and criteria for decisions.
On the other hand, if you really want to stop this teaming effort, here are some “Ways to Be a Team Destroyer”:
- “Don’t share information.”
- Avoid confrontation.
- “Dominate group discussions.”
- “Resist or sabotage group efforts.”
- “Refuse to compromise.”
- “Put your own agenda ahead of the team’s agenda.”
- “Don’t maintain self-discipline.”
- “Blame others.”
- “Be more concerned about recognition of your efforts than about your teammates’ success.”
The Truth in the Myth
One of the myths about teamwork you will often hear is that “conflict is good.” However, a 2003 review of 35 studies over the previous decade found that conflict, whether or not it turned personal, hurt both team performance and the job satisfaction of team members. A goal of formal team development like Full Scale agile is to help the team make great decisions without significant conflict. Many successful teams have done so.
But there is a truth at the base of the myth. If you are going to grow as a team, you have to risk challenging each other. Otherwise, a better idea or information proving a decision was flawed might not come out because someone was scared of “causing a problem.” The team might go along with a manager or expert rather than fully tapping everyone’s opinions. If fear of conflict keeps you from sharing or debating ideas, the odds of your making the best possible decision go down.
Confrontation vs. Conflict
When a confrontation arises, it is very important that you keep it as positive as possible and freely exchange ideas without getting into a fight. Though from an older study using different terms, these quotations do a good job of separating the two:
- “Disagreement over goals, priorities, and methods.
- “Sharpening of issues.
- “Argumentation and insistence on considering alternatives.
- “Mutual respect among the parties, but probes for weakness.
- “Mutual efforts to ensure there is no permanent winner.”
- “Hostility, antagonism, punitiveness, dominance striving and threat.
- “Perceptual distortion, stereotyping, and scapegoating.
- “Trickery, feelings of betrayal, and revenge seeking.
- “Mutual disrespect and denigration.
- “Inconvenience, discomfort, or damage to bystanders.”
In general, task conflict—clashes about job-related ideas—is not as harmful as personal (or “relationship”) conflict, which comes out in such behaviors as yelling, name-calling, and questioning a team member’s motives. Both types of conflicts are bad, but those that “get personal” simply are not acceptable. If confrontations drift over into task conflict, the facilitator must step in as soon as possible to calm things down and move back into constructive conversation. When relationship conflicts break out, the facilitator must stop them right away. With good conflict management, members will build enough trust that fights will eventually disappear even though you still question and challenge each other. At the other extreme, if personal relations get bad enough to end the free exchange of ideas, that ends the team.
You will find conflict-resolution techniques in the “Troubleshooting” section. But I have found that a team can minimize conflicts by defining and sticking to its values, in the form of some team rules—behaviors everyone agrees to use in dealing with each other. If you bear this issue in mind while you work on your those and procedures, you can strike a balance between conflict and its equally dangerous opposite, “groupthink.”
The method you choose as a team for coming to a final decision can add or reduce conflict, either due to weaknesses in the method itself, or by applying it in situations where another choice would be better. Consensus is usually best, but can take extra effort and time you might not have. Votes are faster, but by definition, if there are winners, there are losers. If a few people end up on the losing end a lot, their morale will go down and they may start to resist team efforts. However, no harm comes from voting on smaller decisions that will not create much heartache. A few decisions can be left to managers and subject experts, because they are small or routine or have to be made quickly. The tables below will help you choose the best method for a given decision.
Though it can take longer to achieve than taking a vote, consensus is one of the most powerful tools for developing teamwork. People who support the team’s decision feel internally motivated to make that decision work, while losers in a vote simply resign themselves to it and may not help at all. On larger issues or those that raise strong emotions, call a vote only as a last resort.
One of the biggest objections to consensus is the extra time it is believed to take. That time can be reduced through effective meeting facilitation, which most groups do not use. It also can be reduced by not making every decision that way, as noted above. And if failure to achieve consensus means only part of the team works toward the solution, far more time will be wasted in the long run. You have to either spend time building buy-in before the decision or building it after. The former provides the added benefits of increasing motivation and ensuring full support.
Another objection to consensus comes when people confuse “consensus” with “a unanimous decision,” in which everyone completely agrees with the position. But there is no way a group of people with different backgrounds talking with each other honestly are going to agree on everything every time. The only way to get a unanimous decision every time is to stifle any disagreements. The goal of consensus is to come up with a decision that everyone can support, meaning they will help the team implement the decision even if they disagree with it. Three levels of agreement can bring consensus:
- “I agree with the group.”
- “I do not fully agree, but I’ll go along with the group.”
- “I do not agree, but I’ll support the group if we make a mistake.”
That last level might seem a hard position to take, but it is a “no-lose” choice for the individual. If the team turns out to be right, the member is respected for having gone along with the team, and that individual’s credibility goes up. If the member turns out to be right, everybody knows it, and again respects that person for the team support, so… again credibility goes up!
Note that governmental bodies and some types of charity boards are legally required to hold votes. Even then, the goal of the team should be to develop consensus such that the “vote” often ends up unanimous.
Considerations for Consensus
|Best Used: Whenever possible on decisions that affect the whole team and will have a significant impact on team time, tasks, goals, or finances.|
There are times when a simple vote may become necessary. The most obvious is the one mentioned earlier, in which it is legally required. But even when not, there are times when a vote is perfectly fine. And if the deadline for a decision has been reached and an honest effort at consensus has failed, there is little choice but to take a vote and move on.
Considerations for Voting
|Best Used: On issues of little emotional importance to the team, or on significant issues (as described under “Consensus”) when consensus-building efforts:
Some decisions can simply be delegated to individuals on the team with expertise related to those decisions. Be sure they really have that expertise, though. Base this judgment on their unique experiences, skills, or education. Also, if the results of their decisions over time hurt team performance, the manager or facilitator will need to quietly move back to team-wide decisions on those issues.
Considerations for Delegation
|Best Used: On issues that do not impact the entire team or a large percentage of stakeholders, or which require a high level of special knowledge.|
Within most companies’ job descriptions, a manager has final say over certain decisions. That does not mean the manager has to actually make them: to gain the value of empowerment, the manager has to at least negotiate these with the team, if not let it make them. But sometimes it is more efficient to have a manager decide. Bear in mind, however:
- If team members’ opinions might change the manager’s position, the manager should bring the issue up for discussion, while making clear that the decision is the manager’s.
- If the manager does not have the time, interest or authority to take input on a decision, the manager should not have a discussion just because it “looks good.” Team members will see through that and feel their time was wasted. Make the decision and inform the team.
Considerations for Manager Decision
|Best Used: When a decision must be made quickly, or when the team agrees it is too trivial to spend group time on it.|
The Key to Success
If you want to improve teamwork, you just have to do one thing: Change your daily actions. The challenge, of course, is knowing what actions to change. Contrary to the many myths perpetuated by the “teambuilding” industry to make money off of you, you do not need to focus on individual worker differences, at least at first. Changing the structure of your team(s) and the environment in which they work will have by far the biggest impact on their measurables.
Learn how to do that—and then do it:
- Read The Truth about Teambuilding and browse the Radical Agilist Blog to learn what scientists know about management that most managers do not.
- Use the free, open-source Full Scale agile site to improve the measurables of any size organization, from a single team to an entire enterprise.
Full citations for the footnotes are here.
 Perhaps the best way to explain that last idea is to give you the words of a “Founding Father” of the United States, Benjamin Franklin. As he signed the Declaration of Independence during the American Revolution, he told the group: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Now that is mutual accountability!
 Katzenbach & Smith 1993.
 Tuckman 1965.
 Wheelan 1994; Hackman & Katz 2010.
 Hackman & Katz 2010.
 Donnellon 1996. Unless otherwise noted, everything in quote marks under this topic are from this source.
 There was a great, true story in an academic journal about this years ago. It was a hot afternoon in small-town Texas, but with a fan going on the back porch, a quiet dominoes game, and some lemonade, the day was tolerable for the family. Then the father-in-law suggested they drive into the nearest city for dinner. “What?” the article’s author thought. Drive 53 miles to Abilene, through a dust storm and 106-degree heat, in a 16-year-old Buick without air conditioning? But everyone else says it is a great idea, so the author says, “Sounds good to me.” Of course, by the time the trip was over four hours later, no one was happy, and it came out that everyone had hated the idea from the start—even the father-in-law, who said he suggested it only because he thought everyone else might be bored. In other words, everyone “just said I wanted to go because you did.” The author, a business professor, coined the term “the Abilene Paradox” to show that agreement can be as harmful as conflict (see Harvey 1974).
 Phil Jackson, the great professional basketball coach, proved this early in his career. He took over a minor league team in 1982 which in the previous year had lost twice as many games as it had won. He did something radical: He arranged for everyone on the team to be paid exactly the same, and started playing everyone, from stars to benchwarmers, the exact same amount of time for the first 32 minutes of the game. In the last eight minutes, he put in only the players who were playing best that day. Using that system, the team eventually won the league championship (Jackson 1995).
 Based on information in Parker 1994, Skopec & Smith 1997, and Tubbs 1988.
 McDermott, Brawley & Waite 1998.
 De Dreu & Weingart 2003.
 Rosen 1989.
 Yetton & Bottger 1982.