What is a Real Team?

I recommend you read “The Discipline of Teams” by Katzenbach and Smith. See HBR.com.  This is an article; they also wrote a book with the same title. Their original book was The Wisdom of Teams.  All recommended.

In the article, they give a short definition of a real team. And they distinguish carefully between a real team and all other ‘work groups.’

Here is the definition:

“A [real] 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.”

As an aside, I think the authors mean that the Team members hold each other mutually accountable for success, however they define success for their mission.

A real team is a difficult concept for many people. Why?  Maybe in part because our organizations don’t support the idea, which to me is so essential to knowledge work.

If you have been on a great team, you know in your blood what one is. Or, at least, you know there was something special about the people as a Team.  If you have never had that experience, either in sports or at work, then it is just some concepts.

Of course the real question is ‘how do you form a high performance team?’

We can say that some people have this magic ability to form great teams.  One thinks of Coach K from Duke and many other great coaches from sports.  Some managers are famous for it. And some agile coaches and ScrumMasters are great at it.

It can be done.  And there are some special talents.

First hint.

1. Get a good team.  They need to have raw talent.

One great coach said: “No coach can coach no talent.”  Pretty sure he was not an English major, but you get the idea.

But raw talent alone is hardly the key. Almost no ‘special’ Team ever had all the skill sets on Day 1, for example.

2. Get them to be team players.

This is key, and hard. First, they should care most about team success.

It is hard.  In some moments they must also be ‘selfish’ in a sense.  One person must demand the ball, as we say in basketball.  But, the key is driving toward team success.

3. They hold each other mutually accountable.

Quite key.

Not everyone is equal in ability.  And they each do not have exactly the same skill set.  Yet, they each demand the best from each other.  Each person is willing to give, as we say, 110%. And they each help each other get better, and sometimes that involves a tough conversation.

4. They communicate.

Coach K says this is key. And each great Team does it a bit differently.  One could say the communication is so good, it is almost unspoken.

Of course, any group of people communicates about something some of the time.  So, in a trivial way, communication is common.

So, we mean superior communication about the most important things at the toughest times.

5. They have a tough mission.

This seems to be essential.  The situation, a senior manager or they themselves give them (as a team) a tough mission. They understand  that they will fail, unless they come together as a real team.

Usually, they do come together, and overcome their ‘individual-ness’ and become good as a team.

Experts on teaming say the tough mission forces them to become a real team.

6. Let them self-organize.

You must. It sounds hard. There is no other way.

You must let them fail some, and learn, and become self-reliant ‘as a team.’

7. Don’t let them flounder too much.

You are saying to yourself: “But, Joe, you just said ‘let them self-organize’ and now you say ‘don’t let them flounder too much.’  Which is it?”

Not too much, of course.  Let them fail some.  But as a coach or a manager, you can help them.  Just don’t get in the way of the self-organization.  If they are really floundering, and it is important enough, then you may intervene intervene.  Most people won’t let them struggle enough.  The wise coach, the wise manager chooses just the right time to intervene.  Clear enough?


There is so much more to the art and science of building great teams.

Please share your ideas.



« « Metrics and Managers || Impediment List: Toronto » »

2 thoughts on “What is a Real Team?

  1. Tim Vogel


    As always you hit on some wonderful points.
    Upon my quick read I can offer the additions below:

    1- We are motivators helping the team start and through rough spots

    2- One can look at any project as challenging and as you say ‘tough’.

    3- Given requirements are complete all should flow completely and on time.

    3- Given projects are mapped well, barring catastrophic problems all should flow completely and on time.

    4- Teams must be supportive and if when needed assist one another to deliver quality solutions.

  2. Pingback: Are You A Team Player? – Almazrestaurant

Leave a Reply