Groups versus Teams

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”
–Andrew Carnegie



My team has been together for a few weeks, working together on our procurement strategy.  Already I am amazed at what we’ve accomplished so far.  Even more amazing to me is the manner in which those accomplishments have occurred.  It is as if the purpose of the group crystallized around a commitment to action that is leading to some immediate-term “quick victories” tied to our aligned purpose for being together.  And it seems to me that all I did was “set the table” by having a dialogue with my team: we agreed upon our team’s purpose and how it fit into the larger mission of our organization, we shared why this task and purpose were important to each of us, we identified what results we needed and what actions needed to happen now.  From there the team members spontaneously grabbed items individually or as little sub-teams and got going.

This gave me pause.  What is different now versus other times I’ve been in leadership roles?  After all, I was in a minor leadership role at NASA for eight years prior to embarking on the NASA leadership development program and to a source evaluation board prior to my current leadership opportunity.  What is different now than before?

One item in particular that caught my eye as being different centers around the collection of people I was leading.  No, I don’t mean personalities, I mean this, simply: it is the difference between a group and a team.

What is a Group?

A group is a collection of people who come together to communicate, tackle a problem or coordinate an activity.  Even though the members may meet frequently and regularly, they’re still a group and not a team because as a collection they have specific traits.  In most groups, individual members operate under their own separate motivations and work to achieve independent goals.  Their independent goals may or may not even be related at all to the goals of the group or larger organization.

So, can’t effective leadership direct and guide the group to achieve its ends, to align the motivations into a common purpose?  Sure, yet this points to another characteristic of a group: leadership and decision-making power typically resides in the group chairperson.  The individual members operate at various levels of empowerment beneath the chairperson depending on their position, standing, or – heaven forbid – seniority in the organization.

The final key characteristic that defines a group for me is that little or no time is devoted to building relationships inside and outside the group, and issues of cohesion and trust are rarely (if at all) addressed by the members of the group.

When I consider my previous opportunities to lead collections of people in a professional environment, I was leading groups.  Heck, my title was even Group Lead.  It was true – I was leading individuals who had individual assignments, particular goals each was trying to meet that may not have aligned with the goals of the group or larger organization.  A NASA Associate Administrator once told me that a group is a collection of people united by a common travel agency.  In my prior leadership roles, I was indeed in charge of a collection of people united by a common travel agency, and nothing more.

How is a Team Different?

In contrast to a group, a team is a collection of people who come together to achieve a clear and compelling common goal that they have participated in defining.  To the members of a team, that goal is more important than their own individual pursuits.  It’s this factor that gives a team its cohesion.

A team also creates a set of norms or rules of behavior that defines the agreement on how the team members will interact with each other.  While a group may be run by a chairperson, a team runs itself by norms created by the members.  Team members also cooperate to plan and coordinate roles.  Their work lives are linked together, and they depend on each other.  (They “cooperate to plan and plan to cooperate.”)  When team members have differences of opinion, they tend to have a dialogue about the ideas rather than argue points of view.  They aren’t out to gain personal victory, but to arrive at the best solution for the good of the whole.

While the members of a group generally have only the level of authority inherent in their position within the organization, teams seek and attain higher levels of empowerment.  Drawing on each other to make better decisions, a team typically evolves toward greater autonomy in managing its work.  Whether teams are created to stay together for just a few meetings or for years, they tend to develop more trust and openness than do most groups.  Members have bought into the idea of working together and have made a commitment to common action.

When I reflect upon the fundamental differences between a group and a team, I realize I am experiencing the latter, perhaps for the first time in my career where I’m in the nominal leadership role.  It feels different than before; previously, I felt more of a struggle to mold the collection of people into some sort of coherent force.  Here, I am observing a natural flow as we move forward, committed to action, achieving results, and feeling very positive about how those results are leading to our compelling goal.  I feel tremendous confidence that we’re on the right path here.  Can it be this simple?

(This entry is dedicated to Ingrid Bens, who introduced me to the differences, and to my current team, for allowing me to experience the positive side of the difference.)

Groups versus Teams