We are all one big team, right?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

How often are you told "we are all one big team"?

What does it mean to you?

I suggest that you stop reading for a couple of minutes and digest this statement.

Sentiment or Structure

I think it is a very positive sentiment but quite dangerous when taken as a statement of fact regarding actual teams.

Please read to the bottom before exploding 🙂

The sentiment is very positive and suggests that we are all working towards a common goal. And who would argue with that?

We will all:

  • stop working in silos
  • stop pulling in different directions
  • stop hoarding information as a source of power or protection
  • stop doing things that don't further our common goals

These are all great, but does it not make you wonder why we are doing all these things in the first place?

Question time

Ask yourself if your organisation has teams that:

  • effectively put job types into silos (all the BAs in one team etc…)
  • are not tightly aligned with other teams in agreeing what they deliver
  • can't actually define a blob of customer value that the team delivers (does every team feel like it is there to support other teams/projects)
  • are at the end of the production line and every other team is there to support them
  • has teams that are too large/small
  • etc…

If the answer to some of these is "yes" then ask yourself how happy the team members are?

Here is a question: Would you rather have a "happy" or "sad" brain surgeon operate on you? Obviously, you would hope the surgery will go better, with an emotionally fulfilled health profesisonal at the helm.

What I am getting at, is that the "one big team" sentiment usually gets rolled out when team structures can't get the job done:

These teams tend to:

  • not be cross functional.
  • not deliver real value to real customers.
  • have team members that might be stressed, tired and almost certainly frustrated.

It says "our structure is not right. "Can you all just play nice and get the job done", and people do. Until they become even more tired and frustrated and even the "good ones" are looking for jobs elsewhere. This is not a sustainable model. It is a sticking plaster.

Lets pause for a moment and play with a few fun scenarios. Ask these questions:

  • ask the CEO if you can be on the board 
  • ask a director if you can be on their management team
  • ask the director of a different directorate the same question
  • ask HR if you can join their hiring strategy team

Now ask the opposite questions:

  • ask the CEO to join your team, (all meetings, workload etc…no skiving off), for one month
  • ask your director to join your team full time for a month
  • ask another director to join your team full time for a month
  • ask an HR manager to join your team full time for a month

You will quite quickly find that they are parts of teams and groups that have quite different goals and objectives to you.

They are probably hired because they are the right sort of people to deliver those goals.

You may even find it hard to correlate your purpose with theirs. There is usually layers of "translation" between strategic and operational teams. In the normal tree-like structures of large organisations, it is totally normal to not really "get" how some other teams operate.

You will probably not share that many skills with them, and your performance goals may be quite different. 

You would also find that being a member of several teams quickly erodes your productivity, and the teams all start to feel like overhead.

Would you trust the brain surgeon's team if she let you join it? I am assuming that you are not a trained medical professional.

If you go to lots of meetings and never feel the glow of accomplishment, then you are probably managing overheads born from not working in a complete team.

Few decisions will be based on customer value, and most will be around managing the disparate teams and structures of your organisation.

If, however, you are in an established cross-functional team, that is trusted enough to own the problem, then meetings usually result in getting things done and actually delivering customer value.

What teams actually need

For teams to work they need to be: 

  • small enough that the communication overheads are kept low
  • bounded enough that a common/shared purpose is understood and strived for by all
  • have all the key skills needed to deliver & have a stable membership
  • have some autonomy over what they do (empowered Product Owners really help with this)

It also helps if they have a rock solid link to the outside world. This includes product owners in the agile world, but never pass up the opportunity for team members to actually talk to real customers.

The biggest problem the "all one team" sentiment raises is that managers believe they can just roll people in and out of teams as they see fit.

On paper this may make sense but in the real world it is a team killer. Look at the Tuckman model (form, storm, norm, perform) and ask yourself how long it takes a team to get really productive.

I would hazard a guess at 6 months to a year because most organisations have a heap of barriers to teams developing.

Rotating staff through teams at short notice will set this back and may actually stop teams from ever reaching their potential.

People don't like having play-dates arranged for them and if you treat people like children then they will end up acting like children (cue the tantrum). This becomes a self fulfilling prophesy and management try even harder to fix it. The sad thing is that stopping what they are doing would often do more good. Teams should "Pull" resources in when needed. If they need them full time, they should make a case to get someone added to the team.


So this has been a bit of a ramble, but the message is clear:

  • "We are all one big team" is a positive sentiment that we are all pulling together in a common cause (One that can probably be delivered in many ways by many teams).
  • It does not mean that we have one manager running a 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 person team (because that would be silly)
  • It does not mean that teams are just a big fluid pool of resources to be morphed constantly (because we are human beings and teams just don't work well like that)
  • Investing in persistent teams will deliver benefits. Not investing in teams will cause huge costs in time, money, value and quality. 


There is an interesting article on the BBC about companies hiring teams instead of individuals: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-36219003

It is worth reading around the issue as it has a lot of pros and cons depending on the situation. 



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