Let’s see if we can pull this all together.

In recent weeks we’ve talked about teams and team dynamics. We’ve talked about the too-often perverse relationship between knowledge and certainty. We’ve talked about culture and how its self-reinforcing nature can result in appalling behavior just as it can help bring out the best in people.

Teams, as described here from time to time, are groups of people who trust each other, and are aligned to a common purpose.

Toss in some additional reflection and discussions with various correspondents over the past few weeks and it’s clear that while trust and alignment are important team-ness ingredients, they aren’t the whole recipe.

Another is interdependence. In the world of sports, members of baseball, football, and basketball teams depend on each other move-by-move to get the job done. Golfers competing in the Ryder Cup, in contrast, do root for each other, but don’t nudge the ball when nobody’s looking. Likewise tennis players in the Davis Cup who presumably don’t use mirrors to try to blind members of opposing teams from the stands.

The world of business can be even more extreme: Many companies pit members of the so-called “sales team” against each other in the quest to receive the sales incentives that only go to the top 10% of producers.

And some business leaders still buy into the old MBO (management by objectives) method of setting management goals, assuring that each manager will do whatever it takes to achieve his or her objectives whether or not it’s at the expense of other members of the “management team” trying to achieve their goals.

Does this mean the “sales team” and “management team” are only teams in scare quotes?

Not entirely, because of another ingredient of team-ness. That’s affinity – a shared sense of identity that’s independent of both trust and purpose. Independent, that is, except for a desire to beat other, competing groups.

Which gets us to culture. Shared identity can be and often is independent of trust and purpose. It’s never independent of culture.

Here in KJR-land our working definition of culture is how we do things around here. It’s the informal, unwritten rules the affinity group … the tribe … enforces far more strictly and ruthlessly than HR enforces any of what’s spelled out in the company’s policies and procedures.

Identity politics … tribalism, that is … isn’t limited to politics.

Because if it were, how would you explain soccer riots?

It’s time to connect all this theory to your work-a-day responsibilities as an IT manager.

As the golden rule of engineering is form follows function, start with what you want. I imagine that in most situations, most of the time, you want the men and women who work in your organization to accomplish important results.

Most of the time, they’ll accomplish important results more effectively as a result of teamwork than of working in isolation. So you need to encourage team-building in the trust-and-alignment sense.

But like it or not, achieving trust and alignment is hard work that requires constant, steady leadership. That’s in contrast to achieving an us vs them tribal sense of identity, complete with unwritten rules governing how we do things around here. You’ll get that in spite of your best efforts to prevent it.

What you can do, sometimes, if you’re lucky and the wind is blowing in the right direction, is to channel your employees’ natural tendency to form up into rival tribes, so tribal and team identities coincide, or at least overlap heavily.

It isn’t a perfect solution by any means. Yes, project teams that have a strong sense of tribal identity will work harder and collaborate better internally than employees assigned to a project whose sense of team identity is limited to trust and alignment to a common purpose.

But that same sense of tribal identity will make the team less likely to collaborate with other teams they think of as the them to their own us.

Is there anything you can do to limit the extent to which the tribes take over?

There is. You can keep projects short, so project-based tribes disband before their tribalism starts to dominate the cultural landscape. And, you can populate new project teams cross-functionally, redefining us and them frequently enough to break down tribal animosities faster than new ones can form.

Or, you can do what most managers seem to do: Hope for the best, complementing hope with an occasional lecture about how we’re all on the same team.

That’ll work well.

Buzzwords don’t have to be long to be grating.

Take, for example, the word “team,” which I freely confess appears quite often in this space.

Only my use of “team” doesn’t grate at all, because (1) I rarely couple its use with even-more-grating sports metaphors, and (2) I’m (usually) careful to limit its usage to denoting collections of people who are working toward the same goal, and who trust each other to be working toward the same goal.

Use #2 comes from an old but very useful model developed by a researcher with the unfortunate name of Bruce Wayne Tuchman, unfortunate because, in addition to being named after Batman’s alter ego he also shares a middle name with a disproportionate number of murderers, not that he was ever suspected of such villainy; not that any of this has much to do with the point of what follows; also, if your middle name also happens to be “Wayne” I hope you haven’t taken offense; and if your middle name happens to be “Wayne” and you have taken offense I sincerely hope you have no murderous tendencies.

Where was I? Oh, yes, “team” and its misuse.

Regular readers, and even more so those who have read Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World will recall that one of the eight tasks of leadership is managing team dynamics. Even the less-enlightened usually understand teamwork matters, and so use “team” where “group,” “bunch,” or “committee” might be more accurate.

For that matter, propagandists sometimes disparage team-ish collections of people who are aligned to a shared purpose the propagandist disagrees with by using terms like “crowd,” “gang,” or “mob” to deride them.

So if you ever read something about the “KJR crowd” to refer to those who don’t accept the notion of internal customers, you’ll know what’s going on. I haven’t, but I’d like to. Persecution is good publicity, after all.

Huh. I keep sliding away from the point. Let’s get back to it.

To be more exact than I usually am, all teams are groups, not all groups are teams. It’s a square/rectangle kind of thing.

What distinguishes teams from other groups is that they’re populated with people who both trust each other and are all trying to accomplish much the same thing.

Like, for example, the exact opposite of our current Congress … a point I make not to lose subscribers who are tired of my alleged political commentary but to illustrate with a well-known example. Once upon a time, most members of Congress really did share the common purpose of wanting to improve this country and really did trust each other to have this shared purpose, no matter how much they disagreed about how to improve things.

It’s an important distinction for all teams, whose members aren’t expected to agree with each other about everything, but whose members are expected to reach compromises they can all agree to.

While we’re at it, let’s look at other sorts of group that are common in business situations to see how and whether they should differ from teams.

Start with committees. As with teams, members of effective committees trust each other. Unlike teams, they generally lack a shared sense of purpose: Members of committees are there to represent their own team’s interests. See “Congress,” above, only with trust restored.

Then there are departments … under the best of circumstances, teams of teams. It’s an interesting dynamic. In a department, all members of all teams should share the department’s purpose — its charter and goals.

But individual members of one team need not trust individual members of other teams, not that this would be a problem if they did. But they do need to trust the other teams that make up the department taken as a whole.

Similar logic applies as you move up the organization, from departments to divisions, divisions to business units and so on.

So when an executive refers to the enterprise and everyone in it as a team, there are three possibilities.

One is that everyone does trust the parts of the organization they aren’t personally members of. The second is that the executive would like it if they did.

The third? A sports metaphor is in your future.

Trust me.