To Team Or Not To Team

Do we need teams?

I often insist we need to obsess about the team. This is chiefly because any other structure is either inefficient (the individual) or imaginary (the organisation) when it comes to work. 

I’m writing the chapter in the book that is about teams and -partly for procrastination, partly for the pleasure of indulging in intellectual exercises- I spent some time reconsidering why I am so convinced it’s the most important concept we need to rethink everything around. I’ve challenged myself to be empathic towards what looks like outrageous points of view around individualism and the ability to assemble pieces of work in an abstract layer where introverts and those who loathe social interaction aren’t forced to collaborate; I’ve listened to those saying we’ve been forced into the team structure artificially and read all types of definitions and theories regarding everything from how teams are formed to how they perform (or not, as the case may be) together. 

And all that exploration later I still believe a team is the most amazing collective manifestation of being human. 

Psychological Safety is a team dynamic concept. Agile can only happen in teams. Teams are non-negotiable. 

What’s a team?

I think we have to start at the definition though. And the secret with that is to not really have a definition but to make it super personal instead. You need everyone IN a team to have a very clear idea of what a team is TO THEM even if those ideas are vastly different as long as they have a few fundamentals in common such as “trust”; “collaboration”; “goodwill” and “common purpose”. 

Once you see the essence of a team not as another name for an artificial structure but as a pattern that includes the above, you start seeing it in other groups as well. A family is the best example of a team. But so is a couple or a marriage. Well, the good ones are. As is the group organised around the executive committee for the school fare (remember those?!?) or the local book or cricket club. An instant team is everyone who stops by the side of the road when someone falls ill in the street from do-gooders to the paramedics and the doctors. They instantly slip into collaboration mode pass and accept tasks as necessary trusting each other’s goodwill and knowing the common purpose is that of potentially saving a life.

Who’s on the team?

Some people thrive in the presence of others and are built for collaboration naturally investing more trust and good-will upfront and being able to retain a firm vision of the purpose. The mythical “team players”. Other people think that’s just not them and they find it much harder. 

Have you seen the “I F*****-ing Hate People” slogan floating around? Whether on pillows, a meme or the back of someone’s phone, it is -while disputable taste-wise-, surely relatable enough to all of us at one point or another. Who here reading this hasn’t seen it and thought “Same, pillow, same” some time? But not all the time and not all the people. And that’s true for the most anti-team-ers as well. They aren’t against interacting with awesome people, just the horrible ones. They aren’t against team magic but against painful non-team group experiences. We all are. They just have a different tolerance to it. 

Forever or for now?

Here’s something that is little talked about when it comes to teams: stability. Often confused with job security it is to my mind the only reason for any discussion on retention -while all other rhetorics is maddeningly unexamined- because before teams have been firmly in “performing” mode for long enough -and this “long enough” is different for different industries wherein some instant teaming is possible- they aren’t at their best.

Reading Mike Cohen’s article yesterday about autonomous teams being able to vote someone off the team if they so chose, I must confess I intellectually saw the argument, but that it seemed both cruel and un-empathic and I feel like the team level shouldn’t be where it should ever feel unsafe and un-empathic and that should be extrapolated to some other level or group.

This is in no way an argument for a non-value based system of HR retention above all - where unmerited humans are kept employed. Far from it, we ought to be able to fire non-performers (once we’ve helped them not be that) but somehow it doesn’t sit right with me that we would do it at the team level. That shouldn’t mean we forever keep someone who’s dragging us down either culturally or work-value wise either, obviously.

How about fixed terms? I’m a big fan of contracting and re-contracting. Every voluntary relationship in life is a contract and as such, it ought to be re-examined at a certain agreed-upon interval. Friendships, marriages, work relationships - they all ought to have a point where they come up for renewal. Or not. This allows any of those interactions to feel utter safety through stability for a certain period of time and it keeps us all on our toes to give them our best in that interval. Or not, which may be even better for all of us, but the only teams that are forever should be the ones that ended up that way incidentally through a series of contract renewals each of which was merit and value re-affirming. 

Ins and Outs

As we all know, feedback is the gold of any Agile shop. And you know that it’s only “bad” feedback that moves us forward. The bits that your client says which you intensely dislike hearing but you know you must listen to so that you build and grow. Who here reading this and making a product or solution, hasn’t cringed when their baby has been called ugly but we all know we can’t construct prettier babies unless we know what parts are un-aesthetical. 

No matter how resilient or mentally strong we are, the more genuine and honest the feedback the more painful. Paul Coelho once said, “If we could see ourselves through the eyes of another we’d be mortified no matter what light we showed ourselves in so stop trying for your best angle” and while that’s good advice to be our bad individual selves with no regard to the opinions of others, we know we have to do the opposite when it comes to customers’ feedback and we have to learn to masochistically crave the mortification if we want to ever progress. 

But what if we could think of the customers as being part of our team? One of us. Family. Trusting. Invested. Honest and well-intentioned. Wouldn’t we want them to speak up? Exactly. When we superimpose the idea of the blessed pattern of “team” we are able to do away with the “us versus them” mentality and we stop taking observation as criticism but as help. 

So maybe do the team re-launch we suggested yesterday as part of the things to do to kick off the “new normal” of the post-pandemic world and ask yourself and your teammates - who all are you in a team with? How many teams are you in? If your team-contract for these were coming up soon would you “renew”? Most importantly - what does team mean for you?

Stay sane, Psychologically Safe and team-y. 

P.S. Also what the hell America? Get on the same team! A non-a-holish, decent, kind, empathic, proper human team!

Don't send your teams home with a laptop, a Jira and Slack account and a prayer!

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Related: An Open Letter To Leaders Of Newly Remote Teams