The key to being a high-performing team? Knowing why you’re a team in the first place

For people who work in modern (particularly large) organisations, the question “who’s in my team?” often has no straightforward answer. The world of static top-down hierarchies has been replaced with matrix structures, dotted reporting lines and tangled webs of stakeholder relationships.

Whilst this situation creates a degree of complexity to manage, it’s not necessarily a problem. We don’t need to sit neatly in just one part of an organisation. It’s possible to be part of multiple teams in the way it’s possible to be part of multiple communities. You don’t choose to be a member of your family OR a member of your five-a-side football club. You do both. And each provides value in different ways.

In a work context, the key to coming together in a high-performing team is knowing why you’re a team in the first place.

What type of team are we?

Historically, the word “team” has often been used as a proxy for “people who have the same boss”. This isn’t always wrong, but sharing a reporting line is neither necessary nor sufficient for being a team in any meaningful sense. Many people have experienced the tedium of sitting through team meetings that are essentially a consolidated 1:1 i.e. a series of updates and bilateral conversations with the person in charge, with limited wider discussion.

But if sharing a leader isn’t the basis of being a team, then what is? There are many different answers to this. And teams can take many different forms. An analogy that’s stuck with me is the distinction between football teams and gymnastics teams. A football team is on the pitch at the same time, with distinct roles but high interdependence, and a clear objective to score more goals than the opposition. A gymnastics team is a group of individual best-in-class contributors, performing solo but often training alongside one another, and providing emotional and moral support such that everyone is set up to perform at their best. Both are examples of teams, but individual relationships with the collective look radically different in each of them.

Here’s a few thoughts on some different types of team, and the implications of this for how they come together:

Collective of leaders

Many traditional leadership teams fall into this category. Typically the team is comprised of senior roles who have varied degrees of specialism and reliance on one another, but who as a whole are there to collectively ‘run a business’ of one form or another. For teams like this, coming together is likely to best be focused on making the big cross-cutting decisions, bringing a diversity of perspectives to important issues and getting aligned in areas where there is opportunity to impact the overall success of the organisation (e.g. talent or culture).

Community of practice

This type of team is made up of those who are performing similar activities but in slightly different contexts. Individuals might work together within a functional structure (e.g. be part of the ‘Marketing team’) or might be dispersed across an organisation (e.g. be ‘Marketing Managers’ sitting in different business units). For teams like this, coming together is likely to be of highest value when it’s about driving excellence – building common skills and sharing subject-matter knowledge.

Delivery engine

Project delivery teams are typically those that are focused on achieving a shared, time-bound outcome, often with highly individualised skillsets and contributions. In many organisations, being part of a project delivery team is an addition to business-as-usual, with project activities sitting alongside other responsibilities. For teams in this model, time spent together is likely to be of the most value when it is dynamic and highly collaborative, focused on trouble-shooting or reacting promptly to issues and opportunities as they arise.

Where are we stronger together?

There are, of course, many other types of team, and the list above is just a place to start. The most important thing is to be honest and deliberate about your team and what it’s there for. That way you can leverage your collective talents to be bigger than the sum of your parts, ensuring your time together is purposeful, productive and energising.

About Kindred

Kindred helps organisations achieve growth and impact by establishing the structures, practices and behaviours for people to do their best work. We support leaders and teams to raise their games, individually and collectively.

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