A year ago a Swiss MBA student from one of my university’s international programs declared that US organizations are too focused on teams. I agreed with him, but separated the issue into two parts.

  1. There seems to be a bias toward the team organizational form, even when the task doesn’t support a team approach – this was the issue the student was raising.
  2. The term team often incorrectly used to describe people all working for one boss.
The nitpicky definition of a team matters and may be why so many employees are frustrated with their “teams,” especially their virtual teams. If you are told you are working in a team you have expectations. You expect people to work toward a common goal, you expect people to understand who knows what, and you expect people to help you tie your work into theirs and vice versa. Your expectations, perhaps set on the playground rather than in the office, are exactly right. Teams are three or more people with a common goal, the need to work interdependently to meet that goal, and who have an understanding of who is on the team (there are boundaries). Unfortunately, if the “team” is really just the list of people all working for the same boss or on the same project, your expectations of understanding and support will not be met and you will correctly think you’re on a bad team – though the reality is that you’re not on a team at all. Chapter 3 of Richard Hackman’s book, Leading Teams, has a clear perspective on what makes a “real team.” Much of his view is also available in this interview.

(In this picture, adapted from Van de Ven, Delbecq, & Koenig, B, C, & D are versions of interdependence. A is an example of independent work.)

It may be appropriate that you’re not on a team. If the work doesn’t require the interdependent integration of the work, why endure the coordination cost of the team? If the time constraints are such that there isn’t time for team decision-making, let someone be the director of a set of independent projects. If there isn’t a common goal, don’t expect people to see a need to work together. If the team is an amorphous changing list of people, how will you know who to go to tie into your own efforts? Coordination of teamwork is a task that takes time and effort – when the task requires true teamwork there is ample reward for the cost of coordination – but if the task doesn’t require teamwork you may find yourself in meetings with no purpose.

Somewhere in the history of modern organizations it became evil not to work in teams. My colleagues and I were invited into a global telecom firm to see if we were interested in studying their virtual “teams.” Four of us spent the day interviewing people from 15 different “teams” – none of which had interdependent work. We thanked the person involved in setting up our visit but said that the setting wasn’t appropriate for us as these were not teams. The response was similar to what I would expect if I’d said the employees were spending the day stealing from the company. The initial reaction was that we should identify the wrong doers who weren’t working in a “team.” It took us a while to explain that the issue wasn’t that they weren’t being good team players, but that the work didn’t require teamwork. They were working efficiently and effectively as individual contributors. I thought they should be commended for self-designing the effective approach.

It is more important for sets of people to make proactive decisions about their work structure than it is to be in a team for the sake of being in teams. The right structure may be independent work that is put together at the end of the project – or it may be critical that a true team, with all its coordination costs, take on the task. Many of my students feel that they are stretched too thin across their assigned teams. A first step may be to assess whether you are actually on a team or not. If you are in a “production unit” rather than a team, work with the other members of the unit to understand and set more appropriate expectations. It may also be that there are some true teams where you are an adjunct member and can reduce your efforts for integration and coordination – but do this in discussion with the rest of the team so they can see the benefit and the new coordination needs.

I opened with an observation from a Swiss student. It is important to realize that “team” has different meaning in different cultures, many of which may be represented on a single virtual team. For more on this particular issue see Gibson & Zellmer-Bruhn’s article “Metaphors and Meaning: An Intercultural Analysis of the Concept of Teamwork.”