Go Team or Go Group?

Twenty miles per hour and I am guessing my heart rate is way into the anaerobic zone. Stop looking at the speedometer and concentrate, I tell myself, you need to focus on the task at hand.

The sound of hard breathing and skinny tires whizzing over pavement mixes with the rush of the wind, and that sound level increases markedly if I drift outside of the invisible draft tube that I am riding in. I am riding in a pace line of eight bicycle riders and we are tearing along Falls road in Montague, Mass.  It is exciting and fairly frightening to think my dermis’s continued continuity relies on a group of riders, many of whom I just met, working as a “Team”.

Or are we a group?

Katzenbach and Smith (2011) in their Harvard Business Review article The Discipline of Teams outline ways to tell working groups apart from teams.

Groups exhibit:

  • Individual work products
  • Clearly focused strong leadership
  • Focus is on individual accountability

Teams exhibit:

  • Shared leadership roles
  • Collective work products
  • Measurement of performance by collective output

If we examine the characteristics of both, one could argue that the pace line is in fact a team. Katzenbach and Smith further state that “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” (Katzenbach and Smith, HBR, 2011, location 437.)

Certainly this group of people working together is bound by a common purpose. Moving fast and not getting road rash seem to be a worthy goal and purpose. The end result is group speed and reduced rider effort that cannot be achieved by a single rider alone. But if we look at this group we are lacking one key element that Gratton and Erikson (2011) in their Harvard Business Review article Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams state is key to sustaining high functioning teams: building on heritage relationships. The authors argue that having team members who are familiar with each other is very desirable. There is something to be said for allowing teams time to develop good social and working relationships. By allowing this “forming” time, teams develop a higher level of trust: an essential ingredient and, some might argue, the key to developing high performing teams.

This pace line that we are examining was formed from a collection of riders that really don’t know one another. It is a group that gets formed every Tuesday, and is composed of whoever shows up to do the Bike Shop’s group ride. There of course is some chance that you will get to know the regulars, but there are always a fair amount of “newbies” that show up. We don’t go over rules of behavior, roles or responsibilities; we mill around, jump on our bikes and ride. Granted it takes a while for the pace lines to form, and there is a certain level of sorting that takes place, but it is truly dynamic in nature.

Amy Edmonson in her Harvard Business Review article Teamwork on the Fly talks about a new model of team formation and team development. She states that “Teaming is teamwork on the fly: a pickup basketball game rather than plays run by a team that has trained as a unit for years. It’s a way to gather experts in temporary groups to solve problems they’re encountering for the first and perhaps only time.” (Edmonson,HBR, 2012,p.1)  I feel that this is important new thinking on the subject of team development and creation.

“Moore’s law” is a term coined around 1970 by Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel Corporation.  His basic law states that the number of transistors on a chip will double approximately every two years, thus increasing power exponentially. Nice, but how does that law apply to teams? Well it turns out that Moore’s law reflects not only the change in computing power and speed of technological advances, but it also mirrors the speed at which those changes influence societal changes. Simply put, if we were to graph the speed at which we experience change in our lives, the curve at this point would be almost vertical. We develop products and innovate rapidly and as a result need to form and dissolve teams at a dizzying pace.

Edmonson talks about stable teams and the Simmons bedding company whose teams were examples of very high performing teams. “But Simmons had what many companies today lack: reasonably stable customer preferences, purely domestic operations, and no significant boundaries that had to be crossed to get the job done.”  (Edmonson,HBR, 2012,P.1)   The world as we know it has changed, and the requirement for new methods of team development has arisen. Teaming paints a picture of rapidly developed teams who have no time to form trust relationships and have no or little stability. Teams are built and torn down as needed, to address specific and complex tasks. Teaming addresses the fast paced complex environment that exists today for many businesses.

Does this throw out conventional wisdom regarding team formation? It turns out that some traditional team development requirements actually serve this new model quite nicely.  We still need to develop a common mission for our teams and it actually becomes a very important factor, as we try to bond together, for a common purpose these diverse groups of people. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities will allow these new teams to “ hit the ground running”- we no longer can waste time in the Forming phase. We must work to remove as many obstacles as possible for teams to move through the development cycle of form, storm, norm, and perform quickly. Good working structure and a team support environment become critical.

We need to also make clear to team members that it is okay to fail, and there is no time to build trust, so we must assure team members that we will support them and build what Edmonson calls a “psychological safety net”. (Edmonson,HBR, 2012,P.2) Team members must be assured that we are measuring performance and results on collective output.

We will need to apply good project management processes like Agile in order to help these teams to get up to speed quickly and have tool sets that allow them to react to quickly changing requirements.

Methods of developing, sustaining, managing teams and working groups are changing rapidly and this requires new approaches like Teaming. Teaming and more traditional team building methods have to be mixed and combined when necessary as requirements dictate.  Alloys have different properties that the components from which they are derived. Mixing of methods and application of teams, groups or even hybrid team/group formations may result in an “Alloy” that is greater that the sum of its parts. Now more than ever proper application of team building science is required.

Bob C


Katzenbach,J.Smith,D.(2011). The Discipline of Teams. Harvard Buisness Review on Building Better Teams. [Kindle iPad Verison] Retrived from Amazon.com

Gratton,L.Erikson,T.(2011). The Discipline of Teams. Harvard Buisness Review on Building Better Teams. [Kindle iPad Verison] Retrived from Amazon.com

Edmonson, Amy. “Teamwork on the Fly.” Harvard Business Review. April 2012: n. page. Print.

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