Man thinking at typewriter. (c) everett225.

Defining “team” is harder than you’d think.

Forrest ChristianRequisiteAgility 1 Comment

To start my “defining of terms”, I thought I’d grab the easy pickings and quickly flesh out a term we all use several times a day: team.

It turns out that defining team is extremely difficult, if you want to properly communicate that meaning to a large group of people who have differing ideas about work.

After days of struggle, and a back and forth with myself on the different elements, I have determined that the core problem is with two aspects of teams that we often overlook: how we use words to talk about decisions leading to action (work), and the size of the group we’re calling a “team”.

That words matter is probably obvious to you, but it wasn’t so clear to me when I started because I wasn’t trying to talk about work but simply define the term, “Team”. But in Requisite Agility, as RA co-founder Dr. Stephen Clement points out, It’s All About Work.

Requisite Agility isn’t about social movements, recreation, or spiritual expression. We’re dealing with teams at work, and how to provide a coherent context for groups doing stuff (for lack of a clearer definition at this point). How you talk about work will therefore limit how you define a team.

And, as the recent Requisite Agility unsymposium demonstrated, get two people who use words differently to talk about decisions for action and you will get an argument even when they pretty much agree on the outcome.

Size should be clear, too. It’s well known in sociological research that group size affects all manner of measures. The simplest reason is that as group size expands, the number of dyads (pairings) increases dramatically.

But other issues come into play, too. One is communication: those who have played telephone (aka “Chinese whispers”) have seen the mayhem that can ensue when large numbers of people, even from the same town, try to simply repeat a phrase successfully to each other. More people also means a greater likelihood that someone will use words differently when talking about decisions.

Next time, let’s deal with the problem of size when discussing what a team is.

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Comments 1

  1. What sort of a team are we talking about?
    – Like a pit stop team? People with identical/similar tasks, carrying them out in a joint and coordinated fashion.
    – Like a surgical team? People with different professions/specialities, carrying out a joint and coordinated effort.
    – Like a software development team? People with identical/similar that are carried our in parallell and needs to be coordinated.
    – Like a customer satisfaction team? Could be a help service, cashiers in a bank. People with identical/similar each meeting different clients, but in a coordinated fashion.

    I am reminded about Lynda Grattons “Hot Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces, and Organisations Buzz with Energy and Others Don’t”. I remember when Peter Day interviewed her on radio. She asked him if a group of people immediately should jump into a shared task or if they should start with team-building. Her research showed that group of people diving into a task were more effective as they were absorbed by the task itself. If one started with team-building people discovered who they did not like and did not perform as well.

    For me a team is a group of people who do joint work in a coordinated effort, could be a surgical team or a software team. People are professionals attracted to the task and using their capability and discretion. They enjoy their work so much that most interpersonal issues are not important as long as all in the group are as dedicated. If one needs to do team-building there is something missing in the task itself.

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