"Why Won't My Team Act Like a Team?" | Technological Leadership Institute

Posted on
November 26, 2018
Photo of a closeup shot of a foosball table along with the title of the blog

It is currently fashionable to call any ensemble of people a “team.”  Whether it be the 2018 Boston Red Sox or the X-Men, most of us get excited by the achievements we associate with great teams. After all, who would want to be part of a mere “group” when we could be a “team”?

Anyone who has played on a sports team remembers the feeling of comradery that comes from working hard with other people and then achieving something together. Even if the outcome has more failures than successes, sharing that result with others is a great feeling as well.

But when we enter the workplace, especially in building a technological business, people often report not having that same feeling in their teams. I often hear words like selfish, uncommitted and unproductive. Rather than being exciting, the weekly team meeting becomes the "worst event of the week."

My experience is that these symptoms usually come when management draws a group of names and calls them a “team.”

In fact, most groups that get called teams are not teams at all. They are a workgroup that lacks the essential elements of being a team. A team has:

  • A common purpose, mission and goals.
  • Mutual dependence: "We all win or we all lose."
  • Recognizable stages of development.

A real team is pulled together for a limited period of time with a very specific objective; whether that is a month away or a year away doesn’t matter. The specificity of the goal and the knowledge that the team will be disbanded after the goal is achieved makes it a real Team. Anything else is just a trendy name for a workgroup.

Next is mutual dependence. To be a team, the members must be dependent upon each other. As the saying goes, “We all win, or we all lose.” 

Sure, some performers will stand out and be recognized for exceptional contributions. The 2018 Boston Red Sox had a couple MVP candidates and a number of “role players.” In fact, they won the World Series this year on the strength of their bench, as some of their superstars struggled. But victory was just as sweet for each of them. Every individual had a shining moment in the eight-month slog that is a baseball season and, without each of those moments, the team might not have become the Champion. 

Finally, when a real, co-dependent team is assembled, it is actually unlikely to perform as a ‘well-oiled machine’ from the start. Bruce Tuckman, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, named the stages of team development in a way that has explained every team I’ve seen since:

  1. Forming: Assemble and set goals.
  2. Storming: Anger and frustration as different perspectives lead to disagreement
  3. Norming: Resolving differences and achieving harmony
  4. Performing: Making progress toward team goals

When you form any team together in a technological business, there will be questions about the goals, the timeline, available resources and team structure. It will take time to get everyone “on the same page," and the more experienced the team members, the more questions there will be.

As the work begins, more questions will arise and different people will have different ideas about the right answers. That begins the "Storming" phase. Not only will it appear everyone is not “on the same page," but an observer will also wonder whether they even have the same book.  While this lack of harmony can be scary, it is ultimately a good thing, as issues get on the table and resolved near the start of the effort. (Imagine the alternative: Issues get buried until it is too late!)

The best teams work through the "Storming" phase, and come to some group "Norms" that enable the team to "Perform" at its best. I recall one team I had that was stuck in the "Storming" phase, as two high-powered chemists had totally different ideas about how to approach a key problem. After I reminded the full team that they were not needed if they could not succeed at this challenge, those two people hid in a room for two hours and worked out their differences. They realized their disagreement endangered the whole Team, and they hashed-out on an approach that both could support, and that solved the remaining issues quickly.

One industry that has mastered teamwork is theater. After all, they have been pulling people together to tell stories for hundreds of years. It starts with a goal (say, performing "Hamlet"), a schedule (opening night is set) and a director. The director then selects people for all the roles, both on-stage and behind the scenes. A team is formed. The show opens. The show closes. The people involved spread out again, seeking to be part of the next team.

Your next product development may not be poetry, but to keep it from becoming a farce, remember to invest in building the team.

This blog is part of a 14-week series by TLI Senior Fellow and Honeywell/Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management Steve Webster. Each post will focus on one concept or idea discussed in his course MOT 5001- Technological Business Fundamentals. Other posts in the series can be found here.

About the Author

Photo of Steven Webster

Steven Webster

  • Honeywell/Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management
  • Senior Fellow

Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management

Steven Webster brings 31 years of experience with 3M to TLI’s graduate programs. Teaching primarily innovation classes and leading the Management of Technology minor program, Webster has expertise in new product development and commercialization; technology foresight, planning, and development; innovative organization and design and effectiveness; leadership development; global business; Six Sigma, display technology; consumer electronics, and communications technology.

To be a team, the members must be dependent upon each other. As the saying goes, “We all win, or we all lose.” 

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