Business Teams: What and When

Americans love a good fad. American business is no exception. Business fads have a life cycle:

  • Phase one: A management idea is found to make a dramatic difference under certain circumstances.

  • Phase two: Other people, in their search for a magic bullet, apply that idea indiscriminately, i.e., they forget to think. Unsurprisingly, their results are disappointing.

  • Phase three: The idea in its entirety may become discredited.

Teams are one of those fads. They have worked dramatically well in some situations and failed in others. As a result of the failures, some people have made the mistake of relegating the team concept to the trash heap of discredited ideas. Teams could never have delivered on all of the hype that they got, but they do offer great benefits when used in the right circumstances. If you understand what a business team really is and the characteristics of situations that call for them, you will be able to make good decisions about when to use teams.

Definition: “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” (Katzenback & Douglas in The Wisdom of Teams, p. 45)

Everything you need to know is in that definition, if we dig into it.

  • Small number: Most teams have 10 or fewer people but no more than 25. The larger the team, the more likely it is to break into subgroups.

  • Complementary Skills: If your situation requires all people to have all the same skills, it is probably not suited to a team structure. Situations that need team functioning need people to bring skill sets that complement other team members’ skills. There are three areas of skills to consider in creating a team.

    Technical skills - different people will bring different skills, such as production, marketing, selling, etc.

    Group skills - different members will help the team in different ways to do such things as identify problems and opportunities, consider options, make decisions, and evaluate results.

    Interpersonal skills - saying what you mean, listening, using techniques for constructive conflict, giving and taking criticism, supporting each other emotionally, recognizing the contributions of others, and partially submerging one’s interests in favor of the team’s.

     No one team member will bring all of these skills to the table. Just by experience and personality, different people will have honed different skills. Well functioning teams learn how to “borrow” skills from different members to weave into whole cloth.

  • Common Purpose: All members of the team have made a personal commitment to a long range objective, the reason for the team’s existence. For example, perhaps the long range goal is to update the company culture to fit new external challenges. Culture change is a long process that will require a deep, personal commitment through confusing times.

  • Performance Goals: These are short term measures of progress. The culture change team may set up short range goals, all of which drive the team towards its common purpose. Sign posts of progress are essential to keep a team on track. In the case of culture change, the team might identify such short range goals as:

    determine the business issues that demand change

    identify the ideal culture to fit the new reality

    outline the nature of the current culture

    create methods to help employees learn the new skills necessary to achieve the desired culture

  • Common Approach: While different team members make different contributions, all members agree to the strategies the team will take to achieve its mission.

  • Mutual Accountability: Group members are sufficiently committed to the team purpose and goals to overcome the natural reluctance to challenge or criticize each other. Feelings of mutual trust develop that permit members to confront each other. Trust allows criticism to be interpreted as “I am being confronted for the good of the team” not “So and so has it in for me.” There is a growing sense of “I don’t want to let the team down.”

When to Use Teams: This definition of “business team” sets the criteria for when teams are a useful way to organize the work. Teams work well when the performance demand requires the varied talents of different people. Temporary teams can work well for some special projects. No one, for example, could do all of the steps of organizational culture change alone. A team of people who have a mix of skills: about the company’s business, people skills, and knowledge about culture change itself, is needed. Other work teams may be permanent. For example, many complex manufacturing processes require more than one person working in coordinated ways to make the product.

The alternative to a team is a work group. Members of the group may have the same or similar duties, such as some production crews and some sales forces. Workers may interact to share information, best practices and perspectives, but one person’s performance has no real effect on another’s. There is no mutual accountability or need for it.

Work groups are appropriate when performance relies on individual work products, not collective work products. Best performance for a work group can come from optimizing individual efforts, whereas teams do best when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Team development is a lot of work. Research indicates that when teams are used for the right reasons and are properly constructed, their superior performance is well worth the investment.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps individuals and companies perform at their peak. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

Back to Articles & Publications