What kind of team do you have?

The pioneering management thinker, the late Peter Drucker, recommended a pragmatic approach to team building that started with asking the question, ‘what kind of team?’

His advice was to remember that most human work is and always has been carried out in teams, and so we are not dealing with a new phenomenon. With any work task we have to decide how the work will be best organised. That is not a question of whether or not to use a team but rather deciding what kind of team is appropriate to the nature of the task.  It is also not about implementing a certain “ideal” team, as some practitioners promote. Rather it starts with an understanding of the nature of the work task. Drucker specified three kinds of team that vary in the level of “teamwork” involved in the team.

  • Think cricket.  This is the more common kind of work team.  All members are “on” the team but they do not often work “as” a team.  It is the type of team that is ideal for production and service processes where tasks are repetitive and the rules and protocols of the work are well known.  The great strengths of this team are that all members have fixed positions so that they can be given specific tasks and specific training, and their performance can be measured. However, in this kind of team, teamwork is limited. The crucial skills of cricket, batting, bowling, taking catches, are owned by individuals. Other team members can offer emotional but not practical support.
  • Think football or symphony orchestra.  With good leadership this kind of team has great flexibility and can move fast.  The members of the team have fixed positions but they work “as” a team. Each member coordinates his or her actions with the rest of the team. Typical of this type of team are product development teams and medical emergency teams. But this kind of team needs three things to work well: a coach or conductor; a plan or a score; lots of practice or rehearsal. Members of a cricket team can understand the state of play by reading the scoreboard.  In the midst of play, members of a football team have limited appreciation of the overall ebb and flow of the game, and so no basis for making tactical changes. So a football team needs its coach and the coach’s word must be law.
  • Think doubles tennis team or a jazz combo.  This kind of team is always small. The team members have preferred rather than fixed positions, allowing for members to cover for one another when necessary. This kind of team can use the strength of each member while compensating for the weaknesses of each, so that the team’s performance can be greater than the sum of the individual performances of its members. An organization’s top executive team should work this way. But to achieve the highest level of performance the members require self-discipline and need to work together for a time so as to reach the highest level of teamwork.

More recent ideas about creating teamwork have often been about moving away from the first type of team. Team transitions are never a straightforward matter, but there are some principles that follow from understanding the kind of team you are dealing with:

  • The three types of team cannot be mixed.  Combining the first two types would be like trying to play cricket and football with the same team on the same ground at the same time.
  • The difficulty of changing from one type of team to another is that the change will cut across long established relationships and require new relationships to be built.
  • Improving organizational performance may involve changes to the nature of the work, the workflow, the information flow, and the enabling information technologies. The changes often require a change in the type of team.

Whatever the type of team, improving performance requires both developing the skills of team members and the level of teamwork.

The main development tasks in improving team performance differ for each type of team:

  • For team type 1 it is improving members’ skill levels and streamlining the rules under which the team operates.
  • For team type 2 it is improving member collaboration and the conflict resolution skills of the team leader.
  • For team type 3 it is improving member skills in collaboration and conflict resolution.

Mark Rosenberg