Organization & Leadership Consulting
ants on a team
Ants are incredible creatures.

You’d be surprised at how few people can confidently answer that question. 

When contemplating “Why does your team exist” it’s valuable to think like an ant. Ants are incredible creatures. A single ant can carry  10-50 times its own body weight! But even then, it cannot accomplish the main task of the colony alone. So, more incredible is their ability to harmoniously work together towards a common goal. A true team must know that it exists to accomplish something for the organization that could not be achieved without it. Once its members know what that something is, build the team from there.

What is a Team?

According to John R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith in their book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization, “A team is a small number of people with complementary skill sets who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves accountable.” 

Teams work well when collaborating, trouble-shooting, and problem-solving with others whose skills complement their own. If everyone on the team Is equally good at the same set of skills and only those skills, gaps appear quickly and unhealthy, internal competition increases, widening those gaps. Intentional integration of varied abilities and skills  leads team members to feeling valued for what they bring and supported when problems arise. 

How a Team Differentiates from a Work Group

To more fully  understand why your team exists, it can help to clearly differentiate it from a work group. A “work group”, as defined by TurningWest as a manager-directed gathering of diverse people who share information and perspective on topics of mutual interest and concern, and then return to their work independently of each other.. 

Work groups vary in size and purpose. The largest work groups  are often labeled as “departments”. Without any sense of “teamness”, members of each department focus on individual purposes, goals, outcomes, and self-accountability rather than cross-collaboration and mutual accountability. This department approach can lead to silos which move along paths parallel to each other but often compete for resources, or in worst case scenarios, move  in opposite directions. Either form of silo behavior will adversely affect the entire organization. 

Working Better Together

Either model of collaboration works. Just be clear about which one is being used. Everyone involved needs to share the same mental model, whether team or work group. Without clarity and agreement on a common mental model, expectations vary and misunderstandings increase in frequency and magnitude. Research supports the observation that teams which work at getting better as a team will outperform work groups or casual teams every time. (For an excellent example of this, read the article suggested in the link below.)

Working at being a team also helps members establish strong bonds with each other. When the team connects and works fluidly towards a common purpose, mistakes are corrected more quickly. This happens because of a belief that others have your back and have your best interest at heart. This behavior becomes more authentic the more frequently team members give and receive specific, respectful feedback to and from each other, not only the leader. 

Even in the Pixar movie A Bug’s Life, the heroic main character, an ant, could not accomplish alone the main challenge facing the colony. What he did was help the colony realize what it had to do to survive, a thing that could not be done without the entire team working as one. The “single-hero” model is the ant-ithesis of all that is true about effective team dynamics. 

Suggested Reading: What Rowing Taught Me About High Performance Teams by Bruce Eckfeldt


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