Teams have a two hundred-year history to draw upon for valuable information.  Short-lived teams… think team-building is no more than getting along together. In reality, effective teams build on the vast experience of others to challenge their members to change their behaviours to accommodate the needs of the team.” So says Deborah Harrington-Mackin in her iconic book The Team Building Tool Kit[1]
I’ve been reading a lot about teams at the moment, and of course as a member of the army I often working alongside others in a number of teams, so I thought I knew a bit about how teams functioned, both theoretically and practically.  Turns out there was a lot I never considered about what makes a team … well, a team.
The area of team building has undergone a host of differing theories and [say it softly] even fads since the concept was formalised and passed into the fabric of workplace organisation as divine law. So is it time to deconstruct the team as we think we know it?
Coming back to the concept after some time away from the practical experience of working in teams one thing struck me forcibly and that is the nature of the teams that are held up as the epitome of excellence in most of the academic writings on the subject.
Deborah held out nostalgically for the good ol’ British coal miner experience.  Back in the ‘old days’ coal had been mined by teams of three men – a hewer, a mate and an assistant, the team of three were responsible for cutting and removing the coal from the face and getting it to the surface.  These men often spent a lifetime working together and that relationship formed underground emerged above ground in their personal lives.  
Just how close the mining teams were, is amply demonstrated in Richard Llewellyn’s famous novel, How Green Was My Valley[2].  In it, a character was made to say that ‘each man knows his job and his place’that was, his place in the team.  The problems started when the work practices changed and the small group was disbanded and the routine became an impersonal longwall method. Without the personal element present in the teams, productivity decreased and absenteeism increased. It appeared that teamwork was good for business.
More modern exponents of the workplace team often extol the virtues of teamwork, where the abilities of each member is used to create a dynamic whole, working together to achieve incredible results. Teams such as the ‘operating theatre team’, working to save a life; the ‘fire fighting team’ pulling together to resolve the emergency – even the basic military team ‘the section’, where each member has an important role to play to ensure the safety of all;  and the more I read about these incredibly successful teams, the more something stood out for me – in each of these examples it was obvious that these teams were made up of ‘experts’ in their field who are highly trained and used exclusively in that position.

Even in the earliest example of the coal miners each man had a specific task to do, and each man became an expert in that task. It was unlikely that the assistant would be asked to perform as the hewer – not impossible, but highly unlikely, the position of hewer required specific knowledge.
If we deconstruct the operating theatre team it is obvious that each member of this team is highly specialised and has a specific role within that team. The nature of the task requires each member to trust each other implicitly to perform their role within the team; and should the team need a replacement it is the role that would be replaced not the person.  Likewise the ‘Fire Fighting team’; any change in the team’s make up would require a person who has the required expertise to complete the team’s needs.
I am not saying that in an emergency there would not be enough experience and knowledge in other members of the team to take over temporarily to finish the task – but that is all it would be, a temporary change of responsibilities. In the military section, if for some reason the team lost their radio op, there would be enough knowledge for that position to be temporary undertaken by another member of the team but the permanent replacement would be a soldier with specialised knowledge.
There is also another aspect of these teams that are held up as examples to be followed; and that is that sometimes the team is made up of different people. Not every operating team will consist of the same group of people each time there is a task – often team members will work shifts and those shifts may not coincide with the timing of the operation so the team will change in personal but never in expertise.
Now, how does that relate to your team within your workplace?  Is your team made up of people or specialised positions?  I suspect that if a team is brought together for a specific purpose, the team will be ‘positions’ – otherwise you will belong to a group of people who, with their leader, will be expected to perform the day to day basic tasks required to run the business.  Within this group will be a variety of experience, talents and specialised knowledge about a host of things, many not related to what is required to perform the task.  However, if Joe is the one who can make that dratted photo copier work when all around him have failed, guess what Joe will be considered a specialist in, and what he might find himself doing a lot of!!

There are any number of theories on how teams work, and how they manage to get the tasks done, but it is my opinion that a ‘team’ is created by the task and made up of people who are capableof performing the various roles needed. Until the task is recognised, the group is not yet a team.  I think there is a real difference between a work ‘group’ and a ‘work team’.
So what is your team like?  Are you together to achieve something or just because you work in the same place?  Do you know what your area of expertise is and what you bring to the group, and which can be utilised by a team?  Has your group developed the personal relationship of trust that is an inherent part of those successful teams hailed by the experts?
Is it time for a fresh look at how workplace teams are constructed and what they really  are meant to achieve?

Michele @ Trischel

[1] Deborah Harrington-Mackin, ,The Team Building Tool Kit,1994,New Directions Management Services Inc, USA
[2] Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley, 1939, Michael Joseph Ltd, London

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