Are you coaching a group or a team?

Have you ever played Overcooked 2 with a group of four and managed to gain three stars from the difficult stages?

There’s something truly exhilarating in playing a co-op game with talented people. The fast-paced action, precise communication, seamless distribution of tasks and flexible switching of roles in order to reach a clear goal. It is a highly rewarding experience –– And it is precisely what actual teamwork is.

A group of people is not a team

Putting a group of people together doesn’t make a team. Having a mutual goal doesn’t make a team. Team building exercises don’t make a team. Having rituals, such as daily meetings or retrospectives, doesn’t make a team. All of these things are important, yet not enough.

I had the honor to interview a true agilest, the first certified Scrum trainer in Finland, Petri Heiramo and he introduced me to his theory of what actually makes a team. His concept put my brain through a meat grinder and made me rethink all my past teamwork endeavors. Have I ever been a part of a team – I mean a real team?

The three prerequisites of a team

According to Heiramo, in order for a team to form, we need three things. Firstly, we need to have a mutual, meaningful and a self-imposed goal. Secondly, every team member must know and feel that their skills and participation are necessary for the team to reach the goal. Thirdly, the goal needs to be challenging enough that team members need to push in order to reach it.

If we take a look at these three against the example of playing Overcooked, it is quite clear why the experience is so rewarding. Not only is playing fun, but in order to get forward in the game the team needs enough stars and that means the team needs to perform well on the stages. Simply passing them is not enough. That is a mutual, self-imposed and clear goal for the whole team.

Secondly, it is not possible to succeed without everybody participating. If one player is simply goofing around, the rest are not able to fulfill the tasks given to reach good results. On the contrary, the one goofing around makes it much harder for the rest to succeed – and often causes irritation and frustration in other players.

Thirdly, getting three stars while the game throws curve balls at the players is hard. Original strategies are proven to be impossible when the game proceeds, so it is mandatory to react to the changing circumstances, switch roles and communicate. Sometimes you need to drop what you were doing and jump in to rescue a burning steak or throw oranges on the opposite side of the stage for a team member to chop. Everybody needs to stay alert, prioritize on the fly and be willing to help others.

Without these elements a team is just a group doing group work. Comparing this to your work, can you recollect a situation where you actually were part of a team?

Sometimes group work is more than enough

Group work has a fundamental difference to teamwork. Group work is always the sum of – no more than – its parts. And frankly, most often that is more than enough. In quite a lot of cases, we need different professionals to provide different parts to the whole, and once the pieces are put together we have the product, or service, ready to deliver to the happily waiting client.

When the sum of parts is what is needed, then group work is actually a good idea. There’s no point trying to form a team, when teamwork is not required to reach the end result. We have quite a lot of group work in workplaces (although we call it teamwork) and that’s okay.

But if the outcome needs to be more than the sum of parts, then it is a whole different ball game.

You need a team to…

When you don’t know in the beginning what the end result is going to be like, you need a team. You need a team to ideate, innovate and experiment.

When you need to reach a very tight deadline or budget, you need a team. You need teamwork to come up with ways to save time or money, to come up with better ways of working.

When you have a very difficult end result, you need a team. You need a team, because team members back each other up. Team members exceed their own responsibilities in order to take care of the end result.

You need a team to take ownership not just of their own part but of the whole.

Working in a team requires energy

It is always easier to work alone. If it were possible, most people would like to work alone most of the time. No need to ask anybody, no need to wait for anybody, you could simply perform without extra communication or dependencies. You would be fully in charge and could deliver the quality you want. What a heaven.

The second most simple way is of course group work. In a group you can concentrate on your own part and deliver it well to fit in the whole. You need a bit more co-operation and there are dependencies you need to consider, but all in all you get to do your thing quite freely.

Teamwork requires a lot of energy. When working on a team, you’re all the time taking others into consideration. You’re changing your position, role and task depending on what the team needs. You’re actively communicating with the team members. You’re caring for the whole outcome not just your part. You’re developing processes and reaching new heights. It is tiring, but also exciting.

Coaching a team

When we try to kindle teamwork, to turn a group to a team, we need to be brutally honest. Is teamwork really required? If not, there’s no point because people will automatically revert to group work when they sense the extra effort is not relevant.

Then we need to take a look at the prerequisites. Is there a mutual, meaningful and self-imposed goal? Does each team member know their role and value? And what is the exciting and demanding challenge that is pushing us to stretch forward?

Finally, we need to remember that if one of the prerequisites ceases to exist, team will fall back to being a group. So, it is not just a matter of team formation, it is a matter of the whole team life cycle, to nurture the group into wanting to be a team.

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