Teaming up

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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.

Comments (10)

  • Who to trust? I feel it’s very important to be able to trust most people, but it’s equally quickly identify those you can’t trust, before those people poison the ability of the group to accomplish any agreed upon goal.

    If a person’s actions moves the group towards the agreed upon concrete goals, then within very wide constraints, agreeing or disagreeing with their views is irrelevant and they should be trusted. On the other hand, If a person’s actions once or twice blocks the group from achieving the agreed upon concrete goals, that person is dysfunctional for that group and should not be trusted. But again, in my view, within very wide constraints, agreeing or disagreeing with their views is actually irrelevant to whether they should and can be trusted.

    And, if they can’t be trusted, they need to be quickly removed from group. Any claims of disagreement or disloyalty based on differing opinions held are just red herrings.

    By the way, I’ve changed my mind and now I agree with you about sexual attraction being a large piece of the cause of the resistance and hostility women face in the tech world. That is, men’s unwillingness to learn how to address their problem in this area.

    With respect to trust, sexism, and ultimately, success in IT’s mission, emotions play a profound role.

  • Excellent, and often overlooked point: “all teams are groups, not all groups are teams. It’s a square/rectangle kind of thing. ” Back in the day, when we were debating ‘teamwork’ issues, I’d ask what kind of team are we talking about: a soccer team or an Ryder Cup golf team.

  • Just recently I read the following in a trade journal called OR/MS Today: “I’m glad football season is back, so maybe we can be reminded of the most important lesson you can learn from football. … On winning teams, people don’t tackle their teammates!”

    Sadly, I’ve been around long enough to be part of many losing teams but, perhaps, they weren’t really teams. They were just groups.

  • And whether I’m part of your team, or someone else’s, please don’t address me as “Team” in e-mail salutations. I’m OK with being “All,” or “Everyone,” or “IT,” but please don’t call me “Team.” It’s a piece of cheerleading usually offered up by those trying to make themselves look good at the cost of unity and group success, and it just grates. Feel free to use my name if all else fails.

  • This was a good piece, and good responses. One observation: Too often the “other” definition of “team” actually applies: ““two or more animals, especially horses, harnessed together to pull a vehicle.”

    Occasionally I see “teams” that more closely fit THAT definition…complete with someone cracking a whip!

  • “Huh. I keep sliding away from the point.”

    Aspects of your writing brain did not appear to be functioning well as a team for this article 😉

    “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.”

    Really? Do you have an example of when that was? I ask because whenever complaints about Congress come up (which is nearly always, of course 🙂 one historian or another will point to some era when Congress was equally, or more, dysfunctional, distrustful, and crude.

    No one points out an era when Congress was civil and working well together. Though that might have happened! I just don’t know personally when.

    Certainly there have always been plenty of Congressmen who are strongly motivated by improving the country, and equally vehement that their similarly-motivated colleagues are wrong about how to do it; but then there have also always been politicians who are in it only to improve their own personal position, and that of their family, friends, cronies.

    It’s hard to tell at what times the former may have outweighed the latter. I believe that the “Tea Partiers” and, let’s call them the “Bernies”, both are earnestly trying to improve the country, but the members of each of those “teams” frequently accuse the other of being motivated by self-interest only.

    I guess I’m making a big deal about this in part because I really am curious – I’m not a historian and know little about the workings of historical Congresses; and also to show that like sports, politics have limits in their usefulness as metaphor.

    If you do want to look towards politics, I think the parties might make a better comparison. For example, the Republicans ought to be a team, and they have acted much like a team in the past, but right now they are acting more like a collection of different teams, that do not trust each other and have different motivations and goals, even. This seems to happen frequently to parties that are dominantly in power – it’s certainly happened to the Democrats as well in the past.

    Would there be an application in there to business? Do stressful situations bring a company together to beat their competition, the way a party might bury internal strife to present a united front? Do periods of high success bring out internal teams with different motivations? Perhaps not, and perhaps more the other way around – united companies are successful; one that are distressed are so because they are internally divided, I don’t know. Limits of comparisons, again. Politics and business function in different environments.

    • Well, I’m not a historian either. Based on my admittedly limited knowledge, my sense is that in the WWII years and the Eisenhower years that followed there was more collegiality than acrimony, even though I do know FDR had some fairly rabid detractors.

      Maybe I’m just succumbing to wishful thinking.

      • “There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit for it.” – Charles Edward Montague, 1922. Government’s main function is to operate the programs voted into law for the good of the people. Civility between those we vote for allows for agreements to maintain our infrastructure to be reached, even though they are labeled “compromises”. But the use of a certain kind of personal emotional violence, by a minority, intended to intimidate, control, and suppress other voices, serves no institution in which it is tolerated.

        IMHO, the on-going functioning of government and of business is the result of real civility, so its accomplishments are seen every day, whether or not we perceive them.

      • I *believe* (I don’t know, not having been there) that during WWII, everyone, especially in the military, had to work together in order to survive. It did not matter what your politics were as long as you were working together to survive and win the war.

        I believe that this attitude of working together for the common good remained with those in that generation who got elected to congress. Hence the term “The Greatest Generation”.

        With the passing of that generation, that attitude has passed, as well.

  • Regarding the executive referring to everyone as a team, I think the sports metaphor is more apt, and I think they often have in mind a Lombardi style team where its members sacrifice everything else in their lives for the team’s goals. With this mindset, if one team member doesn’t get it done, somebody else will step in an make sure the team succeeds, no matter what sacrifice is required.

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