Towards a Culture of Teams

Have you ever been asked to work with a team, then observed team members interacting with each other, well… never?

The desire to transform an organizational culture to one inspired by teams is understandable. There is no shortage of evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, which suggests teams (and teamwork) are a competitive advantage. The desire for such results through the use of self-organizing teams has led to the popularization of teams as a common organizational design.

What I’ve found in my career, however, is a tendency for organizations to both manage and incentivize teams like a “matrix” (of individuals) despite the assumption or label of “team”. The net effect is predictable: silos within teams. Research has shown my experience to be prevalent and related to inattention of cause-effect relationships between people and their environment, plus absent knowledge of base conditions which invite teamwork (Devine et al., 1999).

To assist folks with intentionally shaping and influencing organizational structures such that teamwork is (more) likely, I’ve compiled a paper which assembles knowledge and research from the likes of Richard Hackman and Jon Katzenbach & Douglas Smith. It also includes expert information from contributors like Esther Derby, Don Gray, and Heidi Helfand.

You can download the paper here.

Too long? No time to read? Here’s a summary of systemic principles for using teams… or simply the pursuit of improved results:

Working Groups or Teams?

With respect to people working together, two broad categories of “teams” are evident in the business world today: Teams and Working Groups.

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 4.27.11 PM

Working Groups are defined by their achievement as a function of people working independently. They tend to be highly efficient and process-oriented, preferring meetings where information is concisely shared (e.g., “Let’s synch up”). Working Groups have base conditions which encourage the best results:

  1. Clear Priorities for each person to ensure the group’s goals are being attended to.
  2. Known Expectations for how people manage the process, adhere to standards, and communicate.
  3. An environment which makes Individual Accountability a priority.
  4. Systems which make individual achievement worthwhile, i.e., Reward Productivity.

Teams have a distinctly different set of characteristics for working together, most notably the need to go beyond individual achievement for success. Processes and practices which encourage collective decision making are favored, making decision making protocols and agreements for being in conflict necessary. Base conditions for teams are more systems-oriented:

  1. A compelling challenge or goal which makes collaboration necessary.
  2. The collective ownership of both process and work. Teams decide how to achieve the goal and the ways of working together towards the goal.
  3. A shared vision for the team’s purpose and culture helps teammates feel accountable to one another.
  4. An environment which encourages teamwork by avoiding an over-emphasis on individual performance.

Beyond Base Conditions for Teams

The base conditions for Teams described prior represent the minimum criteria needed to encourage team-centric behavior. To maintain a team-centric environment over time, four additional principles may be considered to further nurture teamwork. Consider this illustration describing four additional sustaining principles for teams:

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 11.40.19 AMEach principle is illustrated with respect to impact over time. Therefore, I suggest the most important principle for a real Team in the long-term is Psychological Safety, while the continuous advancement of team members as equals, or Evolving Parity, can have a significant positive impact early on.

What do these principles mean? Allow me to explain…

Evolving Parity implies hierarchy among team members, such as a “team lead” which the organization expects to act on behalf of team members, is damaging to teams and teamwork. The word “evolving” here represents team members placing high value on the collective improvement and development of skills among team members. “Parity” doesn’t imply a lack of advancement or recognition, rather the pursuit of team members experiencing each other as equals.

Self-Enforced Norms and Protocols maintains the highest performing groups explicitly design their relationships and culture. The word “self-enforced” is the key to appropriately understanding this principle. Both the generation and adoption of designed Team norms and protocols must occur without coercion (i.e., a “requirement” or event imposed on Teams by someone outside the membership boundary).

As an adjective, the word “progressive” refers to advancing ideas, findings, and opportunities. Therefore, as a principle for sustaining Teams, Progressive Culture is a Team’s tendency to continually advance their culture towards ever-better ways of working. Richard Hackman describes this principle as a team with “a deviant” – “Deviants are the individuals who are willing to say the thing that nobody else is willing to articulate.” Misunderstanding of the value of Progressive Culture is rampant. From examples where Scrum teams with a dedicated Scrum Master are considered “immature” to managers cracking down on folks who ask “why are we doing this?”, deviant thinking is a crucial part of a team’s continued creativity, innovation, and performance.

Psychological Safety refers to “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” and “a team climate … in which people are comfortable being themselves” (Edmondson, 1999). As the longest time-horizon principle suggested of the four, it is both the highest impact and the most crucial principle for a Team to sustain their journey together. Perhaps the most popular example of the importance of Psychological Safety is “Project Aristotle”, a study initiated by Google in 2012 to uncover the secrets of high performing teams. After extensive review of scholarly research and the company’s own data across hundreds of teams, the project concluded that the single most important factor was a high degree of shared Psychological Safety.


The knowledge shared in this blog post combines both scientific and anecdotal information to merely scratch the surface of working with Teams. For more detailed analysis and insight, including categories of Teams and intrinsic/extrinsic analysis, download the paper.

Teams can form spontaneously on their own. Following the insight and advice in this post and/or paper is no guarantee or promise of real Teams, while ignoring the conditions of people working together may yield teamwork by happenstance. The value in the research presented is awareness of what factors have the greatest cause-effect influence. Teams can be defeated by conditions not conducive to them and turning a blind eye to the system may destroy teamwork before ever having a chance to emerge.

In summary, think about the results you want and provide conditions that support your vision.

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