On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

A team is a team is a team, right? Not necessarily.

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Recently, we've been working with a large, well-known organization that has manufacturing facilities around the world. We're examining the way they design, prepare, measure, reward, and manage theSynchro swim teamir various teams. One observation we've made – which we've also noticed in other organizations -- is the tendency to treat all work teams within a location similarly. But are different teams always similar enough to merit common treatment? 

Teams can differ in numerous ways, some of which are more important than others. For example, teams can vary by size and whether all team members are co-located. We know from both research and experience that those elements can make a difference. But I'd like to focus on another less obvious but critically important variable – team member interdependency. To what extent must team members rely on and coordinate with one another to ensure their own and their team's success?

A sports analogy may be helpful. Let's consider the differences between a wrestling team, a baseball team, and a soccer team. How much do team members rely on one another in each of these sports?

Wrestling. In amateur wrestling, team success is determined by adding up each individual wrestler's independent performance. When I'm on the mat wrestling, my teammates can't do anything to help me (except cheer). We may be able to help each other improve between performances, but when it is time to do my "job," I'm on my own. Yet collectively, as a team, our success is measured as the accumulated score from each of our individual performances. Doesn't that sound similar to many sales teams?

Baseball. How about a baseball team? There are somewhat greater coordination requirements among baseball players than wrestlers. For example, the second baseman and shortstop rely on one another to turn a double play, an outfielder needs to know where the cutoff man will be standing when a ball is hit to the gap, and the pitcher and catcher need to be on the same page throughout the game. Yet when I'm hitting, there is little my teammates can do to help me (unless they are "stealing" signs – not recommended!). So, on a baseball team some of the positions have a natural need for coordination, some events trigger the need for heightened coordination, and some tasks are highly individualized, independent assignments. Perhaps this sounds similar to a project team that you've been on?

Soccer. In contrast, a soccer team has even more interdependencies. It is very difficult for a striker to score without teammates who can pass him the ball at the right time and place. Yes, great individual dribbling skills are required, but a striker's ability to score is greatly influenced by his teammates. Similarly, the defense must act as one coordinated unit to execute an offside trap. And interestingly, soccer teams often adopt a particular style of play. For instance the Italian national team tends to play a very different style than does the Brazilian team (there are several interesting books on the relationship between soccer and national cultures.) You cannot simply plug in a great player and expect great performance if he doesn't share an understanding of the team's style – so coaching is critical to establish common expectations and role clarity. Medical teams, emergency squads, and some work teams often require such seamless coordination and smooth handoffs as well.

Implications. Coordination requirements have strong implications for team effectiveness. They influence how teams should be selected, developed, measured, managed, and rewarded. For example, when an opening occurs on a team with low interdependency, you can focus on hiring a person with the best "position" skills (as long as they aren't disruptive.) But when there is high interdependency, it is also very important to consider how well the new team member will mesh with existing ones.

From a training perspective, coordination requirements often dictate where team training is needed. What must all team members know and possess a common understanding about? What must a few team members be able to do together seamlessly?

You can also see how team rewards must align properly with coordination demands. Rewarding overall team performance when the "team" is really just a collection of individuals working autonomously (in fact, team researchers wouldn't even call them a team) will only frustrate people, as the team members have little ability to help one another and improve team performance. Imagine being a great wrestler on a poor wrestling team with your "bonus" contingent on the team winning its matches. Wouldn't you want to leave?

Here are a few useful questions to consider when working with or on a team:

  • What type of team is this? More similar to wrestling? Baseball? Soccer? We've heard people say "wrestling plus" to describe a team that is mainly individual but has more coordination requirements than a wrestling team. Find a language for comparing teamwork demands.
  • Are there certain positions or team members that really need to coordinate effectively for the team to succeed? What are the key dyads or sub-groups that have greater interdependence?
  • Are there certain times or conditions when greater coordination is called for? When do coordination demands tend to spike? What creates that need?
  • Is the way we are selecting, training, managing, and rewarding team members well aligned with the coordination requirements? What changes might be beneficial?

Is your work team more like a wrestling team, a baseball team, or a soccer team? How about other teams in your organization? Are all teams treated similarly? Should they be?