What is a team? A group of people sitting in the same room? No. Folks having the same boss? Um, really? Those who work on the same project? Again, negative. No matter how badly we’d like one of above to be true, it isn’t.
OK, maybe we should start somewhere else. What are crucial ingredients to call a group of people a team? Why we call a bunch of telecommuters distributed all over the world a team and we’d be reluctant to use the name to label handful of specialists sitting in the same room and working on the same project?
What Constitutes a Team?
Things which come to mind are about how these people cooperate, whether they are helping each other or how they make others better than they would be otherwise. However, it is time to ask the next why. Why one team shines when it comes to cooperation and collaboration and another sucks at it badly?
The answer is a common purpose. As long as a group of people shares the same goal, and the goal is explicit for everyone in the group it makes a game completely different. If I’m pursuing my promotion I’ll optimize my actions toward this goal and not, say, project success. We’re no longer a team even if organizational hierarchy says otherwise. That is, unless we all are working on my promotion, which may be true in elections, to use the most obvious example.
So the team should have a common purpose. Is that all? Well, get a bunch of random people find a goal they share and ask yourself whether they’re a team already. No, not really. It takes time for a team to form. Tuckman’s Group Development Model, sometimes known as Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, tells us that we need to go through, sometime painful, stages before our performance hits the decent levels. You can find similar evidence in other areas of our lives as well. In military, it isn’t without a reason that veteran units are valued so highly. You will see exactly the same thing in team sports. Rebuilding a team is always treated as a huge risk and worse performance is usually expected over the course of the process.
Why Teams Anyway?
One assumption I make here is that, in general, team performance is better than a sum of performance of all individuals that the team is built of. On one hand it may be treated as an oversimplification, as there are tasks which are more effectively or successfully pursued by individuals than groups. On the other hand, the research run by Anita Woolley shows that teams beat the crap out of individuals in terms of intelligence. Put simply, individual intelligence is amplified in a team.
Anyway, even if the opposite was true we’d still need teams as there is only limited range of goals that can be achieved by a single person. Ask even the best player to win a football match single-handedly.
Stability of Teams
Given that we need teams and it takes time for a team to grow, does it mean that we should keep them unchanged so they can evolve toward performing stage? Again, it would be too simple. It would also be somehow contradictory to Lean experimentation mindset, but you definitely wouldn’t like to change teams for this sole purpose. What’s the reason then?
There are two actually. First, freshmen naturally help to change status quo. Every person joining the team brings fresh blood. It is an occasion to use experience, knowledge and perspective of a newcomer to challenge the way things are done. It doesn’t mean every team will exploit each of such occasions but at least they have a chance to do so. This is a reason why you should to add new people to a team from time to time. But before your rush to flood your great teams with truckload of newcomers remember that if you water the team down too much you will be back to the square one. You could disband the team immediately and form it again either way.
Second reason to experiment with teams’ lineups is all about other teams, those which aren’t performing that well. It is a natural thing that being a part of a great team helps you to grow as an individual. You see how this machine works from the inside. Chances are good you can apply some of this knowledge in another environment if you have a chance.
From a high-level organizational perspective, in short term it would be worth protecting your top-class team. However, in a long term it would be a way better choice to spread this culture over to other teams. But again, before you rush to disband your rock-star team and spread people all over the organization, remember that it isn’t magic which change teams immediately but more a catalyst which may, but may not, help spreading best practices and healthy culture across the company. Apply it in small doses or profits won’t be worth the cost.
Teams as a Learning Tool
One thing I’ve already mentioned here is that being a part of a great team helps its members to grow rapidly. The mechanism of it is pretty simple. Given that we share the same purpose, we all gain from sharing our knowledge and experience with others as it increases team’s pace in our pursuit toward the goal. In has one, very nice, consequence. Learning curve of such a team is very steep. Knowledge and experiences are exchanged extensively. Any stuff learned by any team member is quickly propagated among everyone.
It means that it isn’t that important what all team members know on the day one. In the long run they will outrun groups which were more knowledgeable and more experienced because their learning pace is much higher. In other words: don’t focus on tools and technologies, focus on learning pace of your people. These days, especially in IT, learning new technologies becomes easier and easier. Starting a journey with programming from assemblers, back then in 70s, required understanding how processor and memory worked. Writing “hello world” in one of modern high-level programming languages hardly requires anything but ability to read and operate search engine.
It would be unfair to say that it’s easier to be a rock-star programmer now than it was in 30 years ago, but definitely it is way easier to be a decent one. This is another reason why we should focus so much on teams as, unlike with technical skills, achieving decent team performance is still pretty darn hard.
Why Teams Are Important?
Now, let’s take a short break and look at this from a perspective of the whole organization. What is it all about? We’re talking about improving performance, spreading healthy organizational culture all over the company and learning. These all sound nice but why we should value these few things over different virtues which we know that can bring us success here and now?
Well, we’re the part of the business which is changing very rapidly. Agile was launched about ten years ago. Lean was popularized in IT even later. Technologies are changing faster than ever. And most of all, our business environment is evolving at crazy pace. What software were you building 15 years ago? For what platform? In which technology? And what the heck was this whole internet thing back then?
We need to adapt and learn faster than ever and yet we still need to deliver. It isn’t important what we know now, it is important how fast we can evolve when situation changes. And this is something great teams are very good at.
And this is why teams are single most valuable asset of your organization.