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Stop Building Teams!! Confessions of a Team-Builder

Team building!!!!! That’s what I have made my living from for the past 15 years and that’s what leaders keep doing as an answer to workplace woes (low morale, low productivity, lack of accountability, poor relationships, etc.). It makes some sense after all. When you think of a team, what do you think of? People working together in unison? Everyone focused on the same objective? Accessing collective wisdom to find great collaborative solutions to thorny problems? These are all great things and it is certainly nice when it happens. When it happens.... Unfortunately building a great team can be a bit like catching lightning in a bottle. It is hard to do and even harder to sustain. But the thing is... When it works, it is all worth it.

Of course if you ask someone that has been to a team-building workshop or two they will probably roll their eyes at the waste of time. So why is it that so many people end up frustrated with what is intended to be a positive, engaging, and supportive experience?

The answer is that building teams is a mistake. Stop building teams!! You should be building collaborative workgroups instead. What is the difference? Good question! The simplest explanation is this:

  • If the work you and your people do is mostly independent, the outcomes are defined, and the roles stay consistent, then you should probably build a work-group.

  • If the outcomes are emergent, the work is highly dependent on others team member’s contribution, and the roles are flexible/adaptable then you should be leaning more towards a team (assuming you can let go of control!)

Sounds simple, right? So why are we building so many teams and where do they go so wrong?

Part of the problem is that teams are popular in organizations for the wrong reasons. Team building is used as an employee engagement strategy rather than as a strategic approach to work. The idea is: create a “team” environment and the organization will get better results with more highly engaged employees. That’s the theory anyways. Alas, high-performing teams are only about 15% of teams. Most of the rest huddle around mediocrity (or even worse, toxicity) and are inefficient compared to what each individual could do alone.

When teams fail to meet their promise, people lose faith, become less engaged, or worse; you lose people and/or clients. Teams fail to thrive for a wide variety of reasons but most often it comes down to two things: The work is not suited for a “team” approach and/or leadership.

The work does not call for a team approach

One of the main reasons that teams are the wrong approach to engaging people is that most of the work people do does not require teamwork. Getting things done often requires coordinated efforts for sure, but not collaboration. Only occasionally is collaboration a requirement of getting things done, and that is usually a one-off type situation (all hands on deck to solve a big problem for example) or it happens between a sub-group of the team dealing with something they can handle together on an as-needed basis.

Trying to get a team to focus on work that doesn’t really require a team leads to frustration and disengagement because it is very inefficient. It wastes people’s time, their attention lags, accountability suffers and that tends to mean reduced quality and drama. Trying to get a “team” to do work that doesn’t require teamwork is a bit like putting an entire crew on a job that just needs a guy with a shovel.