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Or is it Merely a Working Group?

As children and teenagers most of us played on a team of some kind: sports or otherwise. Remember what it felt like to be part of a winning team or, alternatively, a losing team?  Recall the elation you felt when your team won an important game…or the despair of losing the big game or championship.  Regardless of the outcome of the game, it is something special to experience being a member of a team, something bigger than individual parts.

In my experience the concept of a "team-based culture" is something that a lot of entrepreneurs, business owners, and executives desire but find very difficult to achieve.  The difficulty begins with the definition.  Plato said that wisdom begins with the definition of terms, so here is what Webster’s Dictionary has to say about teams: "a number of persons associated together in work or activity."  Webster’s goes on to describe teamwork as: "work done by several associates with each doing a part, but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole." 

These definitions are a good start but do not give us much practical detail and guidance for use in the business world.  A great resource for helping us understand and build high performance teams is the book "The Wisdom of Teams" by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith. One of my favorite sections is their comparison of working groups and teams, writing that "working groups are neither good nor bad. They are simply an approach that differs from that of a team. While we believe the performance results of a real team will almost always outstrip that of a working group, working groups can and do help their members perform well in their individual roles."

Often we may believe that we are part of a team when really we are merely part of a working group.  Let’s explore the differences between the two, according to Katzenbach and Smith:


Working Group Team
  • Strong, clearly focused leader
  • Shared leadership roles
  • Individual accountability
  • Individual and mutual accountability
  • The group’s purpose is the same as the broader organization mission
  • Specific team purpose that the team itself delivers
  • Individual work products
  • Collective work-products
  • Runs efficient meetings
  • Encourages open-ended discussion and active problem-solving meetings
  • Measures its effectiveness indirectly by its influence on others
  • Measure performance directly by assessing collective work-products
  •  Discusses, decides, and delegate
  • Discusses, decides, and does real work together

It is important to first determine whether establishing a team is actually necessary or whether operating as a working group will suffice.  The discipline required to shape and perform as a team may be more than the situation and objectives require.  On the other hand, if operating as a true team does make sense, how can we help ensure success?  Steven Yelen, a New York-based business coach with over 20 years experience in supporting organizations and teams, provides some guidance with his ideas on fundamental principles and behaviors that work.


Fundamental Principles of a Successful Team:

– Common purpose

– Clear and mutually agreed to working approach

– Appropriate balance of task focus and relationship focus

– Agreement on measurements and aligned rewards


Behaviors that support Successful Teams:

– Push for high quality communications

– Help create a climate of trust

– Play your position and bring talent to the team

– Help drive discipline into the team

– Be prepared to sacrifice for the team; be a good sport

– Help new members make the entry

– Strengthen the leader(s) through good "followership"

– Play down yourself and build up others


Why Teams fail to deliver results?

A common cause of team failures in business is the lack of establishment of clear purpose, goals, measurements, and rewards. Without these foundational pillars in place, trust is often the first casualty, followed by a lack of energy and a sense of helplessness.  Sometimes, we might attempt to establish and operate as a team when a working group might be sufficient. Review the differences above to see which may be most appropriate for you. Also, if the leaders of the organization are not fully supporting a "team-based culture," you can expect cynicism to spread quickly and undermine your opportunity for success.

Well-functioning teams are often extremely important to the success of an organization. Make certain that you are doing all you can do to get the most out of your teams.