While the value of individual employees can be important to business success, typically it is the contribution of teams within an organisation that make the real difference. But are teams as we know them the real secret to success or do we need to look beyond the traditional view?

Teams are important to get things done – no one person can do everything on their own, we all rely on others to make progress in reaching our goals. Unfortunately teams frequently work ineffectively together, with everyone focussed on their own objective, leading to disjointed efforts and limited chances of success. This has been a challenge plaguing organisations for decades, and it raises the question – do we need to start taking a new approach to teamwork?

Experts have been wrangling with the issue for many years, with some, such as Amy C. Edmonson, Novaritis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, looking for ways to exploit the nature of how we really work when it comes to team dynamics.

She explains that in today’s world nobody works in one team exclusively – we switch and change depending on the project, who is available and what we need to get done. Edomonson therefore suggests that being able to seamlessly blend with any team on an ad-hoc basis is now the priority. This means equipping individuals with the ability to meld comfortably and confidently with a wide range of people, and jump into ‘teaming’ mode at the drop of a hat, or a change of priority. Managers also need to look beyond the prescribed ‘teams’ within their business and encourage this ‘teaming’ mind-set which represents a continual and active state of learning and development within a team.

How can businesses create a culture of ‘teaming’, whereby there is a constant, seamless integration of people from across business units, locations and roles mixing together and forming a bond almost instantly, to get a job done?

Although this question relates to how an individual responds to fast changing dynamics, arguably this is not an ‘employee’ problem, it’s an organisational one. While employees have responsibility on an individual level to be accommodating and adaptable to different situations and team environments, this will only have so much impact unless the culture of the business is one of a united team. I.e. does everyone in the business know what the long term goal is? Do they agree with it? Do they have faith in it?

Without this a business will become fractured, regardless of how well individual teams are able to come together and work. Departments will focus on their own priorities, teams within that department will do the same, and it will continue to filter down to the employee level. At this point it is exceptionally hard to rebuild that bond from the bottom up. You are essentially trying to build a pyramid the wrong way round. And it isn’t fair to place that responsibility upon the individual – they only have limited scope to change things. Ironically it needs to be a team effort, and this is where not having that culture in place from the outset, results in a destructive circle.

The danger of the ‘team’

There is an inherent exclusion zone when referring to a ‘team’ i.e. you’re either in it or you’re not. That can be extremely damaging to employee confidence as well as intra-office relations. Leading to questions such as ‘Am I not good enough to be part of that team?’ ‘What are they doing without us?’

Having sub-teams within a business inevitably invites competition, and contributes to an ‘us and them’ attitude to working. It creates invisible barriers between people working effectively together; ‘why would I help X, they’re not part of my team?’ or ‘I’d love to help X, but that would mean I couldn’t get my work done, and then I’d look bad’. These are common examples of corporate behaviour, and all stem from the lack of a truly united team approach at the highest level.

What if what person X is asking for is a much higher priority in terms of achieving the business’ goals? In an ideal scenario that would take precedent over whatever else needed to be done, in the recognition that the overall objectives of the organisation are actually everyone’s priority. But because we have multiple teams, often given separate and disjointed objectives to work towards, the overall goals of the business are side-lined. As a result the business never achieves the growth it strives for.

The new era of teams

Amy C. Edmonson’s ‘Teaming’ is a great concept that is helping to subvert what we mean by teams, and encourage individuals and businesses to become more fluid in our approach, and conscious of how we can leverage our natural behaviours to become more effective when working with others. But while being able to blend faultlessly within new working dynamics, and having the confidence to adapt quickly to changing environments is essential, is it enough? Perhaps the new era of teams isn’t actually about the ability to form and work in ‘teams’, maybe it’s really about letting go of this concept entirely, and focussing on the task at hand, while using teaming principles to work with other people to do it. By forgoing the formation of ‘teams’ it leaves the door open for more people to get involved and input their wisdom, it breaks down the invisible barriers that we inadvertently put up between ourselves and our colleagues, and it allows much more explorative thinking to take place.

Ultimately being part of a team creates a sense of belonging and may provide us with a feeling of purpose, which is important to our psychological wellbeing, but it also creates a sense of exclusion if you’re not part of it. In an ideal world, within any organisation looking to achieve real cohesion, engagement and growth, we’d argue that maybe there should only be one ‘team’, and that team includes everyone who works there.

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