Is Your Team A Real Team?


Olympic rowing is a strenuous sport. A 2,000 meter race (1.25 miles) is physiologically equivalent to playing back-to-back basketball games.[1] With a gold medal on the line, this is no time being drawing straws to determine who gets to play. We want a real team -- not just any eight guys who can hold an oar. High performing teams are real teams. In this post I share seven distinctives that characterize them.[2]

Teams and teamwork are a critical part of life.

Business, health care, law enforcement, governmental agencies, community groups, Olympic athletics, and the church are just a few of the organizations that rely on teams. This week we are exploring four characteristics of high performing teams. The first characteristic is this: A high performing team is a real team. That may sound axiomatic, but it is not. There is a big difference between a real team and a group of people who just happen to be working together.

Yesterday, we set the stage for this series by considering a definition. What is a team? A team is "a group of people committed to a common purpose who choose to cooperate to achieve exceptional results."[3] You can click here to see the full post. Real teams are unique. Experts identify several distinctive marks of real teams.

7 Distinctives Of Real Teams

There is a significant difference between a group of automobile enthusiasts that gather for a weekend car show and a group of highly trained individuals that assemble to compete for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The former is  a loosely defined group. The latter is a high-performing team. High performing teams are able to answer "Yes" to these seven questions:.

1. Do we have a task that takes TEAMwork?

Pat MacMillan has said, "No task, no team." In The Performance Factor, he writes:

So often we misconstrue the concept of teams, stressing the need of good interpersonal relationships. While such relationships are an important ingredient of effective teams, it is the wrong emphasis. The most critical component in building a high performance team is a clear, common, compelling task. The goal of a high performance team is not merely to get along, but rather to get aligned, and, through that, to get results.[4]

Real teams have a real task to accomplish. Everyone knows it and everyone is focused on it. If you want a wake-up call, ask your team to answer this question: What is the task we are committed to accomplishing?

If you are not satisfied with your team's ability to clarify the task, I would recommend The Advantage by Pat Lencioni. 

2. Are we bounded (do we know who is "in")?

A bounded team is one where everyone knows who is "in" and who is "out." Take the Olympic basketball team. There are just twelve players on that team. LeBron James is on it. Dwight Howard is not. Everyone knows this. The same is true for the Olympic Soccer Team or Rowing Team or Jesus' twelve disciples for that matter.

High performing teams have clear boundaries. Jesus had 12 disciples, not 15. Similarly, no one just steps up and says, "I want to be a part of the US Rowing Team," and then gets in. There is a careful selection process followed by rigorous training.

Who is on your team? Is there someone who needs to get off of it?

3. Do we have team norms?

Norms are the vaules and "rules" by which our team lives and works.

Let's return to rowing. Team norms may include a set practice time, a conditioning regiment, dietary and weight restrictions. No matter what they are, everyone buys into them because they are committed to the team. The Miami Dolphins recently released six-time Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson. It appears that he violated the norms established by the Dolphin organization.

What are your team norms? Write them down. How are you highlighting and championing these values in your own life and organization?

(1) ________________________________________________

(2) ________________________________________________

(3) ________________________________________________

(4) ________________________________________________

4. Do we have the right mix?

Take a look at the picture of the US Rowing team below. While it appears that all the men "just row," the person at the stern (back of the boat) is called the Stroke. "The stroke sets the rhythm for the boat; others behind him must follow his cadence." The Coxswain is "the person who steers the shell and is the on-the-water coach for the crew."[5]I don't know rowing, but I can imagine that much time has been spent determining just the right mix for the US Rowing Team.

What is the ideal mix for your current team? If you do not have it what needs to change?

5. Do we have roles (and know who is responsible)?

High performing teams know that each person brings a "certain set of skills" to the team. Every person plays a critical role. Team members rely on each other to get the job done. We can see that when it comes to the Olympic Rowing Team, a hospital ER team, a baseball team, or a team in business.

In the movie, Oceans Eleven (yes I know, a team of professional robbers probably isn't the best example) Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) needed a grease man, a tiny individual who could squeeze into tight places. Their team wasn't complete until they had that role filled. His skills were invaluable and without him the team would have failed.

Are there any roles that are missing or not being fulfilled on your team?

6. Do we have authority to do our job?

Teams function better when they know the extent of their authority and are clearly allowed to do their job.

7. Are we growing relationally?

It is no secret that teams generally move through stages. In 1965 Bruce Tuckman developed a model for how teams progress relationally. Teams go from forming (coming together as a team) to storming (as team members wrestle with their role and voice on the team) to norming (developing healthy working rhythms) to performing (effectively working together to accomplish the mission).

Tuckman Model
Tuckman Model

Where is your team on the Tuckman Model? Relationships are not static. Team dynamics change and every time you add someone to your team you have to go back to the beginning stage.

Team leaders monitor both the task and the relationships of the team. They take time to break out of the meeting rut to build relationships. There are many ways to do this. Here are three:

  1. Keep short accounts.
  2. Relationships breed conflict because we are fallen people. Strong teams have a commitment not to let issues fester or to allow wedges to be driven between people."Are we okay?"is a question that can and should be consistently asked.
  3. Take time for a no-agenda lunch.
  4. I met with a pastor last week of a 12,000 member church who takes time to meet with groups of staff members for "no-agenda lunches." Since most meetings are agenda-driven, this enables him to put the task aside for awhile and devote more time to care for people.
  5. Pray with and for each other.

God tells us, "Two are better than one because they have a good return for their toil" (Ecclesiastes 4:9 ESV). High performing teams believe this to their core. They work together and experience the return for that work.

Can you answer "yes" to all seven questions? What is your next step to sharpening the focus of your team?


[1] Rowing Quick Fact from US Rowing. Accessed August 13, 2012.

[2] These posts on Teamwork come from lessons learned from J. Richard Hackman. Leading Teams: Setting The Stage For Great Performances and Pat MacMillan, The Performance Factor: Unlocking The Secrets of Teamwork.

[3] Pat MacMillan, The Performance Factor. Page 29.

[4] Pat MacMillan, The Performance Factor. Page 59.

[5] Glossary of Rowing Terms from US Rowing. Accessed August 13, 2012.