The Difference Between Teams and Teaming

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When I say the word team, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Chances are, it's your favorite sports team, and there's a good reason for that. Sports teams provide a great exampleof the essence of the idea of a team. They are stable, bounded groups of people who are interdependent and working for a shared goal, winning the game. A bounded group of people with clear membership over some duration is the definition of a team, and in business organizations, teams are often used to develop a new product, to, say, implement a new technology, or even to run a company, and in sports, of course, it's about winning the game.

In general, a team is a group of people whose members are interdependent in accomplishing their work. Now, I've been studying teams and organizations for quite some time, and I've noticed that the nature of teamwork is dramatically changing in today's organizations. To illustrate what I mean, consider an emergency room, and a patient comes into the emergency room, and within a short time, we hope, a group of clinicians have gathered 'round to try to figure out what to do. Now, the chances are very good in most busy emergency rooms that that group of people may have never worked together before.

They may not know each others' names, and so it is absolutely crucial for them to get up to speed quickly about what skill set each of them bring so that they can take great care of that patient. Now, that may be an extreme example, but think about similar situations in your own jobwhere you're required to collaborate with someone that you don't know very well, and your quality of collaboration, how well you team together will absolutely make or break the success of the project. In general, I'm seeing a lot more fluid, more flexible configurations of teamwork.
I see people on multiple teams at once. I see teams with core members and peripheral members, and in every case, they need to work effectively together, but without the luxury of stable, familiar colleagues who have worked together on the same team for a long time. What does this mean? It means people have to get good at teaming, teamwork on the fly rather than teamwork in stable, familiar teams. This takes the ability to build work relationships on the fly, to quickly get up to speed on what others bring, what they're up against, what they're trying to get done, and communicating the same in reverse about yourself, and then, your job is to clarify what are the shared goals that you have, to brainstorm options, to make decisions, and to move forward.

Teaming means getting up to speed quickly so you can work together effectively. Teaming, by it's very nature, is a learning process. No sequence of events will ever unfold exactly the same way twice when people have to work together to coordinate their ideas, their actions, and their possibilities, and so, when you're a participant in a teaming process, you're always in a position to learn. It's inherently impossible to exchange the most important information perfectly every time, so we have to expect some confusion, some uncertainty, and even sometimes some chaos along the way.

At the same time, teaming is a skill that, with practice, can become second nature, and just as there are very real challenges to teaming, there are also very real benefits, both to organizations and to individuals for mastering these new ways of working. With the flattened hierarchies todayand the distributed leadership, is the need for strong leadership fading away? I'm going to argue quite the opposite. In fact, the activities of teaming, which include taking risks, confronting mistakes, crossing boundaries of all kinds in organizations, are anything but natural.
This means that leadership is more needed than ever to help bring them about.

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