Craig and I flew to the west coast last week to work with a great group of people. We were there to work with them on building a high performing team, but by the end of the day, it was clear that they don’t need to be a team. Although it doesn’t happen often, sometimes we advise people to stop trying to be a team and to aim for a model that would be a better fit for the task at hand.

What do we mean when we say, “team.”

I use the word ‘team’ when two things are true of a group of people:

  1. The share a common goal; and
  2. They are interdependent

The group we were working with consisted of the leaders of several shared service support functions. They were the ‘keep the lights on’ part of the organization. As such, they definitely had a shared goal—to keep the operation running safely and smoothly. Criterion number one, check!

It didn’t take us long to realize that they didn’t meet the second criterion; they weren’t very interdependent. The organizational structure was built with clear lines of accountability and few cross-functional entanglements. Each member of the group could accomplish their goals without needing the assistance of the others.

Here’s why it matters

It would have been easy to just slap the label of team on this group and proceed with our standard efforts at improving their effectiveness, but a team requires too much investment to use when not warranted. Building a team requires extensive investment in creating and maintaining alignment and in fostering a healthy dynamic. Neither of those come quickly, nor will they last without ongoing commitment and effort. Building a team is just not worth the investment if the group can succeed independently.

What’s the alternative?

We didn’t pack our bags and go home the moment the group realized they weren’t a team. Instead, we talked about the alternative model; how to become a great community. A community is exactly what it sounds like: A group of people who, although they don’t live under the same organizational roof, have common interests and an ability to support one another. There are many benefits of being a part of a strong community at work.

Think about the benefit of being a part of a community in your home life. It’s great to know that there’s a place to borrow a cup of sugar when the stores are closed. It’s nice to rest assured that your kids walk past eight houses where they could stop in if ever there was danger. And the fireworks display at the park is WAY better than what you could do in your backyard, because you all chip in. The same benefits are available from a community at work.

How to be a better community

Instead of spending our day together helping the group become a better team, we helped them think of ways to be a stronger and more valuable community for one another.

  1. Get to know one another. Because the group had been able to operate relatively autonomously, they didn’t actually know one another very well. As senior leaders in very demanding jobs, one of the advantages of being a part of a strong leadership community is the availability of moral support. They committed to get to know one another a little better so they would feel more comfortable seeking out that support when needed.
  2. Share learning. Although their work is quite different from one another’s, there are so many opportunities to share learning on common issues faced in supporting the organization. They resolved to share what they learned about influencing up, dealing with disasters, and recruiting talent.
  3. Be a sounding board. In the current model, the only review of the members’ work comes from the leader. To be a stronger community, they agreed to act as an advisory board for one another. Members will bring their most important and challenging issues to the table and seek counsel from the community. They acknowledge that this won’t be technical expertise, but the wisdom and experience in the community makes it a very valuable source of diverse perspectives.
  4. Provide back up. Building an organizational model with little interdependence is great for getting things done, but it means that there is no redundancy across leaders. The community has agreed to get sufficiently up to speed on one another’s areas that another member could step in and provide guidance in the others’ absence. This won’t solve the succession challenge, or even cover an extended illness, but it will provide peace of mind for the occasional week away.
  5. Advocate on common concerns. As the saying goes, “There is strength in numbers.” For this community, that means greater impact in influencing the organization on shared priorities. The group came up with several areas where they believed speaking with a common voice would get more attention and more resources.
  6. Pool resources for shared initiatives. Finally, the community saw many spots where sharing their resources would allow them to do things more efficiently. One opportunity they discussed was the gap in training between general people management (which is provided by the organization) and specific technical training (which is distinct in each group). That gap included skills such as project managing engineers and dealing with a crisis.

The notion of team is so common these days that you probably don’t stop to ask whether a team is the right structure for you. There have been several cases we’ve dealt with lately where the group was right to question whether the investment in sustained alignment and a constructive dynamic was worth it given the relative independence of the members. In some cases, the answer was, “yes.” In this case, it was, “no.”

Further Reading

Maybe You Don’t Need to Be a Team

Can Your Team Make Decisions

Focus Your Time on Real Value

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