(615) 656-0465 mark@markskenny.com

Note: this is a series of weekly tips to build a functional, collaborative, aligned team.

Tip: Determine if Your Team is Actually a Team

When I was in college, I worked as a cook at Pizza Hut. My job on a Friday night was to get pizzas cooked and out to our customers within 15 minutes. I was so proud to whip those pizzas out on time. My job was not to build vulnerability-based trust or have passionate debate with the wait staff or with my manager. Nor was my job to make decisions on what was best for the restaurant. It was to whip out those pizzas on time. So, were we, as employees, a team?

Which brings me to this week’s tip: determine if your team is actually a team. Or is it a group of people that just happen to sit in the same place on the org chart? (let’s call that a working group)

The distinction is important because it dictates our strategy as a leader.

When I am facilitating a strategic team offsite to build a functional, collaborative, aligned team, there is an assumption that I am working with an actual team that makes decisions together and must collaborate together in order to achieve a high level of results. That may sound funny, but evaluating this distinction is a part of my pre-work process. Just because the people on your “team” happen to occupy the same position in the org chart, that doesn’t make them a team. And that’s OK. They don’t have to be a team. It may be appropriate to be a working group, in which case you probably don’t need me. But as leaders, it is important to be clear on the matter. Let’s look at the differences.

The classic definition of a team is a group of individuals that comes together to achieve a common goal. But for our purposes and in my experience, this definition doesn’t cut it. We could all have a common goal of generating data reports for our internal clients, for example, but that doesn’t mean we need to work together as a team in order to generate them effectively.

Instead, for our purposes, an actual team:

  • Makes decisions and works through challenges together.
  • Contributes collectively to a common goal or goals.
  • Works collaboratively to achieve results.
  • Is smaller in size (usually 3-9 people)

In my experience, the most significant telltale sign in that list is that they make decisions and works through challenges together. You are relying on this small group of people to work through key decisions and challenges. When that is true, then everything changes. The team must be cohesive, have open honest debate, commit to the team’s course of action even if they didn’t initially agree, develop accountability, be 100% clear on why they exist, how they will succeed, and what is most important now. If the team does not do the work of building a cohesive team, it is going to suffer – along with everyone at lower levels in the organization.

This is why my work is so important and why it is so essential for the leader to prioritize building a functional, collaborative, aligned team.

The most obvious example of a team is a leadership team responsible for leading and setting the direction for a company, agency, department, or division.

On the other hand, a team that is a working group:

  • Does not make decisions together (be careful with this one – sometimes we think the group is making decisions but in reality it is a smaller team within the larger group who is relied upon to actually make the decisions).
  • May do work individually (the work doesn’t require collaboration).
  • May be more advisory in nature or meets to be informed as opposed to making decisions and working together. These groups tend to be larger in size (for the purposes of this discussion, let’s set aside political groups who vote and make decisions – they are a different animal outside the context of our discussion).
  • May have individual goals instead of common goals that the group works together, collaboratively, to achieve.

Some random examples of working groups:

  • A group of individuals who work independently on individual cases (customer service, inquiries, family services, etc.).
  • A large group of leaders in an organization who meets to report or be informed about what is happening. (note: a client will sometimes ask me to work with a team like this and I often encourage them to look at who it is who actually are relied upon to debate and make decisions and thus is part of the true leadership team – start with that group first).
  • A team of project managers who manage their own individual projects without the help of others on the team (one of my experiences in a former life).

These are not “wrong.” They may be completely appropriate and legitimate. The important aspect is that we, as leaders, have clarity on how best to serve our team.

  • If this is a true team that makes decisions and must collaborate together to achieve a high level of results, then, as leaders, it is our responsibility to do the work of building a functional, collaborative, aligned team that trusts one another, can debate ideas openly, holds one another accountable, etc. In fact, as the leader, we are the only one who can make that happen. If we don’t prioritize this, it will not happen. (and there is a distinct process to making this happen – email me if you want a summary)
  • If this is a working group, that is a different focus. It may be more of making sure that everyone knows the tasks they need to accomplish individually, why their individual tasks matter, putting in systems to manage those tasks, etc. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t create engagement and joy and high morale, but that is a different focus than building a high level of trust, healthy debate, commitment, accountability, etc. (Note: it’s also fine to call them a team! Just be sure that you, as the leader, understand the distinction.)

Bottom line: determine if your “team” is actually a team. Then determine how best to serve them.

If it is a true “team” in this context, then go build a functional, collaborative, aligned team!