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What is a Team?

By January 17, 2023No Comments

Groups don’t become teams because that is what someone calls them. Nor do teamwork values by themselves ensure team performance. Then what is a team? What steps should managers take to achieve team success and how can they determine when the team option is the best course of action? These queries are addressed in this article, along with a description of the discipline required to form a true team. Shared dedication is what makes a team work. Without it, groups only have the ability to perform as individuals; with it, they can perform as a potent unit. The most successful groups put a lot of effort into creating a mission they can call their own. Additionally, the most effective teams integrate their purpose into precise performance objectives. Successful teams also have individuals who contribute and take responsibility for their teammates as well as for themselves.

Performance serves as the primary dividing line between teams and other types of working groupings. Individual contributions made by each member of a working group are what drive the effectiveness of the group. A team, however, aims further than what any one member could do on their own. In other words, a strong team is always worth more than the sum of its parts. Teams that recommend things are task forces or project groups. Teams that make or do tasks are manufacturing, operations, or marketing groups. Teams that run tasks are groups that are in charge of a key functional activity. Knowing which areas of the company should support genuine teams is crucial for managers. Everywhere organizational or disciplinary boundaries prevent effective performance, there is team potential. Teams will eventually replace individuals as the main working unit in high-performance businesses, the authors predict, given the added level that they can attain.

Teams that actually function, as opposed to nebulous groups that we refer to as teams because we believe the label to be inspiring and energetic, tell stories and accomplish tasks in this manner. Most of us pay much too little attention to what separates teams that perform from other groups that don’t. Because everyone is familiar with the word “team” and the idea it represents, this is part of the issue. Finding out what makes teams perform at different levels, where and how they function best, and what top management can do to improve their efficiency were all things we set out to find out.

Effective teams

Effective teams follow a fundamental set of rules. Additionally, we discovered that teams and effective performance are mutually exclusive. However, the way the word “team” is used nowadays makes it difficult to learn and put the discipline that results in high-caliber performance into practice. Having a clearer understanding of what a team is and isn’t can help managers decide whether, when, and how to promote and utilize teams.

Most business leaders support collaboration. That’s right, too. Giving people the benefit of the doubt, offering encouragement, and taking an interest in and celebrating the accomplishments of others are all part of the collection of principles that make up teamwork. A team’s performance is aided by these ideals, which also support individual and organizational performance on the whole. Although they are not unique to teams and are not sufficient to guarantee team performance, teamwork values do exist.

As well, a team is not merely any group of people cooperating. Teams are not need to be committees, councils, or task groups. Teams don’t just form because someone names a group of people a team. No large or complex organization’s whole workforce ever functions as a team, but consider how frequently that adage is used.

We must make a distinction between teams and other types of working groups in order to comprehend how teams produce improved performance. Those differences depend on performance outcomes. The effectiveness of a working group depends on what each member accomplishes on an individual basis. The performance of a team consists of both individual outcomes and what we refer to as “collective work-products.” The work that two or more individuals must collaborate on, such as experiments, surveys, or interviews, is known as a communal work-product. Whatever it is, a team’s output represents the members’ genuine, collaborative contributions.


In large businesses where individual accountability is crucial, working groups are common and efficient. The most effective working groups meet to exchange knowledge, viewpoints, and insights; to make decisions that enable each member to do their duties more effectively; and to reinforce personal performance standards. However, the emphasis is constantly on personal objectives and responsibilities. Working-group participants alone accept responsibility for their own results. Additionally, they don’t try to create performance contributions that are gradual and call for the efforts of two or more members.

Working groups and teams are fundamentally different from one another because teams demand both individual and group accountability. Teams rely on more than only information sharing and best practice performance standards, as well as on group discussion, debate, and decision-making. Teams create distinct work-products as a result of the individual contributions of each member. Performance levels that are larger than the sum of the individual bests of team members are made attainable by this. A team, in other words, is more than the sum of its parts.

The first step in creating a disciplined approach to team management is to stop viewing teams as simply sets of ideal qualities and start seeing them as separate performance units. We propose the following after having seen and worked with numerous teams, both successful and unsuccessful. Consider it as a practical definition or, even better, as a shared discipline that all effective teams must adhere to.

A team is made up of a limited number of individuals with complementary abilities who are dedicated to a shared objective, set of performance standards, and strategy for which they hold one another accountable.


A team’s core value is shared dedication. Without it, groups only perform as individuals; when they have it, they perform as a potent unit. A goal in which team members may believe is necessary for this kind of dedication. Credible team goals always involve winning, being the first, innovating, or being on the cutting edge. Examples include “convert the contributions of suppliers into the delight of customers,” “make our firm one we can be proud of again,” and “show that all children can learn.”

By collaborating to create a compelling purpose, teams gain focus, momentum, and dedication. However, adopting early direction from outside the team is not incompatible with developing ownership and dedication to the organization’s goal. The commonly held belief that a team cannot truly “own” its goal unless management gives it space to do so confuses more prospective teams than it helps. In actuality, it is the uncommon circumstance—for instance, in business circumstances—when a group independently develops a goal.

Most effective teams adapt their goals to fit a demand or opportunity that is placed in their path, typically by senior management. This broadens the performance expectations of the organization and aids teams in getting going. The team’s charter, reasoning, and performance challenge must be made clear by management, but management must also give the team enough leeway to come up with its own interpretation of the purpose, a specific set of goals, timing, and strategy.

The most effective teams put a lot of time and effort into determining a mission that is both collectively and individually theirs. The squad remains in this “purposing” phase the entire time. Contrarily, unsuccessful teams rarely establish a unifying goal. They do not unite around a difficult ambition for whatever reason—a lack of effort, a lack of emphasis on achievement, or inadequate leadership.

Clear Goals

The most effective teams also transform their shared purpose into precise performance objectives, like lowering the supplier rejection rate by 50% or raising the math test scores of graduates from 40% to 95%. In fact, if a team doesn’t set clear performance goals or if those goals aren’t clearly related to the team’s overarching mission, the members will become disoriented, split up, and perform at a substandard level again. On the other hand, when purposes and goals are joined with team dedication, they constitute a potent performance engine.

The most reliable initial step for a team striving to create a purpose meaningful to its members is to transform broad directions into precise and measurable performance goals. Teams can stand on strong ground by working toward specific objectives like bringing a new product to market in less than half the usual time, responding to every client within 24 hours, or eliminating errors while saving expenses by 40%.

There are Numerous Causes:

Specific team performance goals aid in defining a set of work-products that are distinct from both individual job objectives and the organization’s overall mission. As a result, such work-products demand the team’s cooperation in order to achieve a defined goal that, by itself, contributes genuine value to the outcomes. In contrast, team effectiveness will not be sustained by only meeting occasionally to make choices.

The specificity of performance goals makes it easier for the team to communicate clearly and engage in healthy conflict. The team is forced to focus on what it would take to either achieve or reevaluate the target when a plant-level team, for instance, sets a goal of reducing the average machine changeover time to two hours. Discussions can concentrate on how to achieve these goals or whether to change them when they are crystal obvious; conversely, when they are vague or nonexistent, they are considerably less fruitful.
Teams can stay focused on producing results when their goals are achievable.

As demonstrated by Outward Bound and other team-building initiatives, specified goals level the playing field and promote cooperative behavior. Their various titles, privileges, and other stripes vanish when a small group of people push themselves to climb a wall or cut cycle time in half. The teams that are successful determine what and how each member may contribute to the team’s goal in the most effective way. More importantly, they do this by focusing on the performance target itself rather than the status or personality of a particular member.

A team can gain little victories while pursuing its larger aim by setting specific goals. These little victories are crucial for fostering dedication and conquering the challenges that will inevitably stand in the way of a long-term goal. For instance, the Knight-Ridder team that was discussed earlier transformed a limited objective to decrease errors into an inspiring customer-service objective.

Performance objectives are motivating. They inspire and serve as motivators since they are symbols of success. They encourage team members to commit to acting as a unit to change the world. Teams driven by drama, urgency, and a healthy fear of failure focus their collective eyes on an achievable but difficult goal. The team alone has the power to make it happen. It is a difficulty for them.

How to Know Which Groups Are Teams vs. Others

Performance depends on having both clear goals and a purpose. To stay relevant and important, each is dependent upon the other. The bigger, even more lofty ideals in a team’s mission provide both meaning and emotional energy. Clear performance goals enable a team monitor progress and hold itself accountable.

While a team’s goals aid in tracking its progress, a larger purpose provides meaning and motivation.

Team Size

Almost all successful teams have a size between 2 and 25 members. They have often been less than 10 in number. Admittedly, being small is more of a practical guidance than a strict need for success. Theoretically, a group of several individuals, say 50 or more, may form a team. However, groups of this size are more likely to split up into smaller teams than to work as a single entity.
Why? Large groups of people find it challenging to collaborate effectively, let alone do meaningful work. Ten people are much more likely to overcome their personal, functional, and hierarchical differences in order to create a shared goal and hold each other accountable for the outcomes than fifty people are.

Large groups must also deal with logistical challenges including obtaining enough time and room to meet. Additionally, they deal with more difficult obstacles like herd or crowd behaviors that inhibit the intense viewpoint exchange required to form a team. As a result, when they attempt to create a shared purpose, they frequently end up with just flimsy “missions” and well-intentioned ideas that cannot be turned into actionable goals. Meetings often rapidly become a chore, which is a telltale sign that the majority of the participants have no real reason for being together beyond the vague hope of getting along better. Anyone who has completed one of these exercises is aware of how annoying it can be. Failure of this nature sometimes breeds pessimism, which hinders subsequent group projects.

Teams need to identify the correct size as well as the right mix of skills, or all of the complementary skills required to complete the team’s task. Although it seems clear, it is a typical mistake with prospective teams. Three areas of skill requirements are generally self-evident:

either technical or functional knowledge. A group of doctors suing over employment discrimination in a court of law would be illogical. However, medical malpractice or personal injury claims are frequently litigated by medical and legal teams. Similar to this, product development teams that solely have engineers or marketers are less likely to be successful than teams that have the complimentary talents of both.

Decision-making and problem-solving abilities

Teams must be able to recognize the opportunities and issues they are faced with, assess the options available to them for moving forward, and then make the required trade-offs and judgments regarding how to proceed. Even though many people learn these abilities best on the job, most teams need at least one member who possesses them.

Interpersonal Capabilities

Without efficient communication and healthy conflict, which in turn depend on interpersonal skills, common understanding and purpose cannot be achieved. Risk-taking, constructive criticism, objectivity, active listening, extending the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledging the interests and accomplishments of others are a few of these.

Obviously, a team needs a minimal set of abilities to function, particularly technical and functional ones. Even yet, consider how frequently you’ve been a part of a team whose members were picked solely based on personal compatibility or formal status in the organization, with little consideration given to the skill mix of its members.

In choosing a team, overemphasizing skills is also typical. But none of the successful teams we’ve seen started off with all the necessary talents. In reality, we found that teams are effective means of acquiring the abilities required to overcome the performance problem faced by the team. As a result, choosing team members should be based equally on talent potential and skill demonstration.

Strong commitment to a shared strategy, or how they will cooperate to achieve their goals, is developed by effective teams. Team members must come to an understanding regarding who will perform specific tasks, how deadlines will be set and followed, what skills must be cultivated, how team membership will be maintained, and how the group will make and alter choices. The team’s dedication to this aspect of commitment, as well as its commitment to its purpose and goals, is crucial to team performance.

The core of developing a shared strategy is coming to an understanding of the details of the task and how they fit together to integrate individual skills and improve team performance. Perhaps it goes without saying that a method that assigns all the actual work to a small group of people (or staff outsiders) and relies solely on meetings and reviews for its features of “working together” cannot support a true team. A successful team has members who all put in an equal amount of genuine effort, and everyone—including the team leader—contributes in tangible ways to the team’s output. This is a crucial component of the emotional reasoning behind how well a team functions.

Every member that enters a team scenario, particularly one in the workplace, has prior job responsibilities as well as strengths and limitations that represent their specific histories, skills, personalities, and prejudices. A team can only determine and reach consensus on the optimal strategy to accomplish its goals through the mutual discovery and knowledge of how to deploy all of its human resources to a common goal. A commitment-building process in which the team frankly discusses who is most suited for each task as well as how individual tasks will come together sits at the core of such protracted and, at times, challenging interactions. In essence, the team creates a social contract among its members that connects to their goal and specifies the rules and requirements for their cooperative behavior.

No group ever develops into a team until it can hold itself to its collective obligations. Mutual accountability faces a challenging test, much like shared purpose and strategy. Consider the minor but important distinction between saying “the boss holds me accountable” and saying “we hold ourselves accountable.” The first scenario can lead to the second, but the team cannot exist without the second.


Consider the distinction between “we hold ourselves accountable” and “the boss holds me accountable.”

Teams can form “organically” whenever there is a clear performance problem needing group effort as opposed to individual effort in organizations like Hewlett-Packard. The concept of mutual accountability is prevalent in these businesses. The way they play their performance game is by “being in the boat together.”

Team responsibility is really about the sincere commitments we make to ourselves and others, commitment and trust being two of the most important components of successful teams. The majority of us approach possible team situations with caution because our entrenched individualism and life experiences make us reluctant to entrust others with our fortunes or take accountability for others. Teams do not succeed by wishing such conduct away or ignoring it.

Mutual trust cannot be forced, just as it cannot be forced between individuals. However, mutual accountability develops as a natural counterpart when a team has a single purpose, set of goals, and strategy. Accountability results from and strengthens the time, effort, and action put out in determining what the team is attempting to accomplish and the most effective way to do it.


The development of trust and commitment occurs when people cooperate to achieve a common goal. As a result, teams that share a strong common strategy and purpose hold themselves accountable for the team’s performance both individually and collectively. The great rewards of shared success are also produced by this sense of reciprocal accountability. Members of successful teams consistently expressed how the experience was invigorating and motivating in ways that their “regular” work could never compare.

On the other hand, teams that are formed primarily for the purpose of becoming a team or for job enhancement, communication, organizational effectiveness, or excellence rarely succeed, as evidenced by the unfavorable impressions quality circles experiments in many businesses left behind when “quality” was never translated into concrete objectives. The process of discussing goals and approaches to them only gives team members a clearer and clearer choice when appropriate performance goals are set. They can disagree with a goal and the path that the team chooses and, in effect, opt out, or they can pitch in and become accountable with and to their teammates.

All teams must maintain the discipline we’ve described for them to be successful. But going a step further can be helpful as well. Most teams fall into one of three categories: teams that make or do things, teams that recommend things, and teams that manage things. According to our observations, each kind encounters a unique set of difficulties.

Groups that make recommendations

These teams may be task forces, project teams, audit, quality, or safety groups tasked with researching and resolving specific issues. Teams that provide recommendations nearly always have deadlines set for completion. Getting off to a quick and productive start and coping with the final handoff necessary to get recommendations implemented are two crucial difficulties that are specific to such teams.

The team’s charter’s clarity and membership’s makeup hold the key to solving the first problem. Task forces need a clear explanation of who management expects to participate, how their contributions are crucial, and the amount of time that will be needed in addition to wanting to understand why and how. Management may assist by making sure that the team consists of individuals with the knowledge and clout needed to develop suggestions that will be taken seriously across the firm. Additionally, management can assist the team in obtaining the required collaboration by providing access and removing political roadblocks.

Teams that advocate things are virtually usually stymied by missing the handoff. To prevent this, top management must devote time and focus to handing over responsibility for suggestions to people who must put them into action. It is less probable that recommendations will be followed the more top managers expect that things will “simply happen.” The more personally invested task force members are in seeing their recommendations carried through, the more probable it is that they will.

It is crucial to involve them in the process early and frequently, most definitely before suggestions are formalized, to the point that individuals outside the task force will be expected to carry the load. Such participation can take many different forms, such as taking part in interviews, contributing to analyses, offering and criticising ideas, and doing tests and trials. Anyone in charge of implementation should, at the very least, be briefed on the task force’s intent, strategy, and goals at the start of the project, as well as on a frequent basis.

Groups that produce or perform

These teams are made up of individuals who work at or close to the front lines and are in charge of carrying out a company’s basic production, development, operations, marketing, sales, and other value-adding tasks. Teams that manufacture or do things typically don’t have specific completion deadlines because their operations are continual, however there are occasional exceptions, such as new-product development or process design teams.

Top management should focus on what we refer to as the company’s “key delivery points,” or areas in the organization where the cost and value of the company’s products and services are most directly decided, when determining where team performance might have the biggest impact. These crucial delivery points may be found in the locations of account management, customer support, product design, and productivity measurement. The team option is the best choice if performance at crucial delivery points depends on integrating various abilities, viewpoints, and judgments in real-time.

Where is there a place for the team option? This is the area where the price and value of the company’s goods and services are most directly determined.

The sheer difficulty of maximizing the performance of so many groups will necessitate a well designed and performance-focused set of management practices when an organization does at these times require a considerable number of teams. The challenge for senior management in this situation is how to provide the required systems and process supports without getting caught up in the appearance of promoting teams for their own sake.

Returning to our earlier consideration of the fundamental discipline of teams, the requirement in this situation is a relentless concentration on performance. The organization may start to believe that “this year we are doing teams” if management consistently ignores the connection between teams and performance. However, top management must first and foremost set clear and compelling expectations for the teams and then continuously monitor their progress with regard to both team fundamentals and performance results. Top management can assist by implementing processes like pay schemes and training for teams responsive to their real-time needs. This entails concentrating on particular teams and performance issues. If not, “performance,” like “team,” will lose its meaning.

Teamwork and performance issues will prevent the terms “performance” and “team” from becoming overused by top management

groups in charge of stuff. Even though many leaders refer to the group that answers to them as a team, very few groups actually are. Additionally, because they are so concentrated on achieving performance goals, organizations that develop into true teams rarely view themselves as a team. However, there is room for such teams at all levels of the organization, from the top down to the divisional or functional level. It is a team that runs things whether it is in charge of thousands of people or just a few, as long as the group manages some business, ongoing program, or substantial functional activity.

Determining if a true team approach is appropriate is the main challenge these teams have. As working groups rather than teams, many organizations that manage things can be more productive. The crucial decision is whether the group must offer substantial incremental performance necessitating meaningful, collaborative work-products or whether the aggregate of individual bests will sufficient for the performance issue at hand. The team option carries more risk even though it promises higher performance, so managers must be ruthlessly honest when weighing the trade-offs.

A natural reluctance to entrust their fate to others may be something that members must get over. The cost of pretending to be a team is high: at best, members lose focus on their individual goals, costs outweigh benefits, and people resent being forced to sacrifice their time and other priorities; at worst, serious resentments arise that undermine even the working-group approach’s potential for individual bests.

Less risk is present in working groups. Since the leader typically sets it, effective working groups need minimal time to shape their mission. Meetings follow carefully prioritized agendas. Additionally, decisions are carried out by means of particular person tasks and accountability. Therefore, working in groups is typically more convenient, safer, and less disruptive than attempting to achieve unattainable team performance levels if performance goals can be fulfilled by people performing their individual duties well. In fact, improving the effectiveness of the working group makes much more sense than futilely attempting to build a team if there is no performance need for the team method.

Having said that, we believe the additional level of performance teams can accomplish is crucial for an increasing number of businesses, particularly when they undergo significant transformation that depends on widespread behavioral change for business performance. When senior management forms teams to operate operations, it should ensure that the teams are successful in formulating clear objectives and targets.

This is a second serious problem for management teams. These teams frequently conflate the narrow objective of their tiny group at the top with the wide mission of the entire firm. According to the discipline of teams, for a real team to emerge, there must be a team purpose that is unique and exclusive to the small group and that necessitates its members to put in the work and complete something beyond individual end products. A group of managers will lack any team performance objectives if they base their evaluation of overall effectiveness solely on the financial success of the division of the organization they oversee.

Teams at the top are undoubtedly the most challenging, even though the fundamental discipline of teams does not change for them. Teams at the top struggle because to the complexity of long-term problems, time constraints on executives, and senior people’s ingrained individuality. The most effective teams are those that are at the top. At first, we believed that such teams were virtually unattainable. This is due to the fact that we were examining teams in accordance with their formal organizational definition, which states that a team consists of its head and all of its direct reports. Later, we learned that actual teams at the top were frequently smaller and less structured. A few were fours, but the majority were twos and threes.

The most challenging and effective teams are those at the top

However, there are still very few true teams at the top of big, complex businesses. The assumption that all direct reports must be on the team, that team goals must be the same as corporate goals, that team members’ positions rather than skills determine their respective roles, that a team must always be a team, and that the team leader is above doing actual work prevents far too many groups at the top of large corporations from achieving real team levels of performance.

These presumptions may be reasonable, but the majority of them are unfounded. They do not apply to the teams at the top that we have observed, and true team performance at the top can and does happen when they are replaced with more realistic and flexible assumptions that allow the team discipline to be implemented. Additionally, we will see more genuine teams at the top as more businesses are forced to manage significant change across their organizations.

In high-performance organizations, we predict that teams will predominate as the primary performance unit. However, this does not imply that formal hierarchy and process or individual opportunity will be crowded out by teams. Teams will instead improve current structures rather than replacing them. Anywhere organizational or hierarchical boundaries prevent the knowledge and viewpoints required for the best outcomes, a team opportunity occurs. Thus, maintaining functional excellence through structure while eliminating functional bias through teams is necessary for new-product creation. Frontline productivity also necessitates maintaining hierarchy for leadership and guidance while utilizing self-managing teams for energy and flexibility.

We are persuaded that every business faces unique performance issues for which teams are the most useful and effective tool at the disposal of senior management. Senior managers must consequently focus on the performance of the organization and the types of teams that can deliver it. This means that teams must be deliberately deployed when they are the right tool for the job, and top management must encourage the fundamental discipline that will enable teams to be successful. Top management does this to foster the kind of environment that fosters individual, team, and organizational performance.

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