Strong teamwork is typically thought of as a good organizational asset. Leaders like to form teams. People, for the most part believe in the value and purpose of teams.
You've probably heard:
"Two heads are better than one."
"1 + 1 = 3"
Such common phrases reinforce our belief in the power of teams. That belief is justified. Sometimes.
You have to make sure you build the right *kind* of team.
Two Basic Types of Teams
I'm not a sports person, but I'm going to use a sports analogy here. I believe there are two basic types of teams: basketball teams and track and field teams.
Basketball teams (or soccer or hockey) are teams that require, by the nature of their task, that everyone play as one unit. On teams in these sports, the players are interdependent. At any moment of any game, in order to be successful, the entire team needs to be working in harmony. The role of each player is designated by their position (which takes into account their innate strengths and acquired skills). However, the situation at any moment during the flow of the game, may require any player to take any role.
On good teams of this sort, all players are willing to be flexible, to assist, to change roles, to “do what it takes”. Because they know that without working together, they can’t achieve their team goals of victory. The nature of the game forces interdependency among the team members.
Track and Field Teams
Players on track and field teams, on the other hand (except in a few relay events), are not interdependent. They are independent. Shot putters have a skill set that is largely unrelated to the sprinters. High jumpers can be personally skilled and successful without any tangible help or support from the distance runners.
At the end of the day (or meet), the team can win if enough of the individuals do well. In other words, if enough individuals win, the team will win. The most successful of these teams will have highly talented individual contributors, supporting each other to reach their common goal of winning. In this way, they are definitely a team. They may feel allegiance to the group. They certainly can have pride in being a part of the group. They want each other to be successful. They know that they can all be more successful when each individual is more successful. They can have a common goal (to win the meet or championship). However, the fundamental relationship between the players isn’t the same as it is on a basketball team.
What This Means to Us
Most organizations will likely need both sorts of teams at one time or another. We have teams that work in a process flow or project where the outputs of one person directly affect the work of the next – where the work and the people are highly interdependent.
We also need teams that look more like the track and field team. In these situations, people are working toward a common mission and goal, but their work doesn’t intersect in nearly the same ways as for the highly interdependent teams.
In my experience, people tend to *think* they want every team to function like basketball teams. If the work or project dictates that focus, great, but sometimes a really strong track and field (independent) team will serve you better and you don't need to waste time on interdependence and traditional “team building” activities.
What Do We Do Now?
If you're thinking about building a team to support your business, association or nonprofit, you need to strongly consider this distinction. Determine what level of interdependent or independence you would realistically need at this point in your development and set the right expectations from the start. This allows you to build more appropriate plans for training, development and team building and, ultimately, it will help you be more successful.