Defining and developing a team

by HCA10 Jun 2009

Sometimes I hear clients say, 'But I'm not part of a team - so teamwork principles don't apply to me!' But can anyone really believe this? The world of work is constantly redefining itself as technology develops and such is the complexity of tasks these days that just about everybody is dependent on another person for the optimal delivery of their outputs.

Some teams have a high level of interaction and dependency whereas other teams may just be a collection of people who need little interaction to fulfill their tasks. But everyone is part of a team, no matter how small it is - and every team needs team development to optimize performance. Appropriate team development (ATD) is a function of team purpose and the process starts with defining a team.

My definition of a team comprises five levels, arranged in order of increasing complexity:

  • Networks
  • Collections of individuals
  • Meetings
  • Groups
  • Intact teams

Networks: These describe interactions of like-minded people who communicate informally in order to benefit one another. These interactions may be face-to face but are often virtual - via phone, email or video conferencing. Networks of realtors or sole practice accountants are good examples of this level of teamwork.

The network team is the broadest definition of teamwork covering the situation where network members function by giving and gaining information.

Sole practice professionals such as accountants rely on specialist advisers to provide services when required and these specialists are part of the accountant's team.

Teamwork in this situation particularly relates to good communication and appropriate team development (ATD) interventions should focus on this topic. Giving and gaining information relies on the skills of Pacing, Inquiry and Identification - three stages of the Strategic Communication Model described in my book, The Pacing Partnership: Influencing Skills for Successful Outcomes.

Successful Pacing requires some understanding of how team members like to approach work so that they can communicate in each other's reality. Sharing of Team Management Profiles opens up the idea that communication is a dynamic process and the best way to communicate depends on who is on the other side of the loop. Using one communication style with everyone leads to eventual conflict.

Collections of individuals: These are people usually sharing a common manager and frequently the same office space, although many are geographically dispersed. They have few regular meetings and need little interdependence in order to fulfill their tasks. Usually reward and recognition is on an individual basis and there may be few common goals. Regional sales executives reporting to a sales manager are often 'collections of individuals'.

In addition to communication skills, ATD for this level would include job analysis of critical work functions using a model like Team Management Systems' Types of Work Wheel. In these teams it's likely that the critical success functions for each team member would be similar as each person is performing a similar job. For example, a team of sales executives might have critical success factors in the sectors of Promoting, Developing and Organising - or a team of accountants may have critical success factors in the sectors of Inspecting, Producing and Organising.

Once the critical work functions for the relevant job have been determined, the match of these functions to the personal work preference of each team member can be determined. If a team member has a preference for Innovating, Promoting and Developing work but the critical work functions are Organizing, Producing and Inspecting then the match is low and development would focus on improving this match for each team member.

The 'collection of individuals' team is often unbalanced. An ideal team of sales executives would have strengths in the Promoting, Developing and Organising work functions but the team as a whole may ignore key areas of Advising and Maintaining, for example. ATD initiatives might therefore focus on providing these functions by linking with other teams in the organization who can support them, e.g. administration.

Meetings: In this grouping, people only become a team by virtue of the meeting. However during this time they need to interact in order to define and achieve goals that impact all members. Often the meeting place is an arena for trading information, power and resources. The members are usually visiting the 'meeting' as representatives of certain responsibility areas and return 'home' after the meeting is concluded. This is a common grouping among senior management who may attend many meetings, such as the Monthly Management Meeting or the Steering Committee Meeting. In each meeting they need to understand their colleagues and learn to work well with them.

For these teams understanding of team work preferences is critical and an ATD intervention may well start with feedback of Team Management Profiles. Such a process would highlight the strengths of each team member and the chairperson would use this information when conducting the meeting. In addition, some analysis of the risk-orientation of each team member would be beneficial. If, collectively, there were a skew towards high risk-acceptance then the team may unconsciously bias their discussions and decisions towards opportunities that in hindsight could be seen as over-optimistic.

Conversely a risk-averse team would predictably say 'no' much more frequently and therefore miss opportunities.

As the prime purpose of the 'meeting' team is to run meetings, an ATD process would also look at the advantages of different meeting formats using the color codes of the Team Management Wheel.

  • Linking meetings (white) are often short, sharp catch-up meetings, often on a daily basis. For a 'meeting team' these tend to be virtual.
  • Green meetings are information-sharing meetings that generate ideas and bridge opportunity gaps. Green represents the Advising/Innovating part of the Types of Work Wheel, where fresh ideas are gathered.
  • Yellow meetings focus on Promoting and Developing ideas both within the organization and with external customers. Often to make a project work, teams have to sell their ideas to others in order to obtain the people and resources to carry them out. Yellow meetings identify key stakeholders and develop ways to influence them.
  • Red meetings move into the Organizing and Producing phase. Here the emphasis is on making decisions, driving action and achieving goals on time and to budget.
  • Blue meetings (Inspecting and Maintaining) reflect on the progress being made and evaluate the processes used. Often this meeting can be overlooked and teams who neglect the time needed to review a project tend to miss the areas that could be improved. Taking time to check the details and audit the project will go a long way towards keeping customers satisfied and the team effective.

Each of these meeting formats may need a different agreed set of ground rules to ensure team effectiveness. 'Meeting teams' comprised of people with strong Thruster-Organizer preferences may avoid green meetings and those from the other side of the Team Management Wheel may avoid red meetings. But both meeting formats are essential to success.

Groups: The next level is often referred to as a 'group'. Here the group task or objective defines its identity. Individual members are usually selected to solve this particular task and are often chosen on their complementary skills. There is a high level of interdependence in relation to the task and the group objective drives the way everyone is organized. Often groups have a short life and will disband when the objectives are fulfilled. Task forces (e.g. safety) and project teams are good examples of a 'group'.
The outputs and outcomes from task force teams can be influenced by the behavioral tendency of the team members, so ATD with this class of team starts by selecting appropriate people.

In general the best teams here are balanced in terms of work preference and approach to risk. If a task force reviewing safety is comprised of people with strong preferences in the Controller-Inspector/Thruster-Organiser sectors then the outcomes are more likely to be compliance related. By including some people with strong preferences in the Creator-Innovator/Explorer-Promoter sectors, new approaches to safety issues are more likely to be generated. When I worked as an engineer earlier in my career I can't remember how many safety meetings I attended that showed the same (very old) safety film and focused just on compliance. They were boring and most of us just 'switched off'.

Intact teams: At the highest level of teamwork is the grouping of members with the highest level of interdependence. They will usually have clear team competencies and unlike the 'group' will tend to organize the task rather than the other way around. The team members may, when necessary, stand in for other team members, such is the level of group coherence. Team members in an intact team usually spend the greatest amount of time together and are usually working on many different tasks.
Intact teams are the ones capable of the greatest productivity increases through appropriate team development. They are also ones where there is potential for the greatest conflict. Team development in these teams is an on-going process than can take some time to realize benefits. Therefore consultants/facilitators need to have a wide range of tools at their disposal to address the issues of constant interaction.

Many of the problems facing intact teams relate to the different approaches people take to the world of work. In these teams I like to introduce the Pyramid of Workplace Behavior which enables underlying differences to be brought to the surface. In addition to work preferences and approach to risk, these teams need to agree a shared set of values that will guide the way the team works. The Window on Work Values is the tool I use to bring out these differences. The opposing value types of Individualism/Authority (Power, status, wealth, influence etc) and Collectivism/Equality (harmony, loyalty, cooperation, tolerance, integrity etc) are the source of many difficulties. Many people espouse Collectivism but their actual behavior is more aligned with Individualism.
A good starting point for interventions with this class of team is the Strategic Team Development Profile. This addresses eight core questions that are the basis of successful intact teams:

  • Who are we?
  • Where are we now?
  • Where are we going?
  • How will we get there?
  • What is expected of us?
  • What support do we need?
  • How effective are we?
  • What recognition do we get?

Each of the strategic questions leads to the design of an ATD event addressing possible initiatives.
Appropriate Team Development (ATD) depends on the class of team you are working with. Most people are part of a team of some sort. Try to categorise them into one of the five levels - it will make your process design so much easier!

About the author

Dr Dick McCann is an international researcher and consultant in organisational and team development. He is co-author of the Team Management Systems approach to team development. Email or phone (07) 3368-2333 for more information.