When is a team not a team?

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This week, we’ve been thinking about what a team is, how it works and what it does.

Like most people, I work in a team. Or at least, I thought I did.

Do I really? Or do I just work with a bunch of other people with similar skills to me?

A few years ago, Barcelona FC put together a football team that is widely regarded as one of – if not the – greatest football teams of all time.

Yes, they had supremely talented individuals: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, and, of course, Lionel Messi. But it was the way they played together that made them stand out.

They played a style of football called tiki-taka – short, sharp passing movements that mesmerised opponents. The Manchester United manger at the time, Sir Alex Ferguson, likened playing them to being on a merry-go-round.

They prospered as a team because they played as a team. They had a shared purpose. A common goal. And they shared a vision.

But they had more than that. They worked for each other – they collaborated. If they were defending a 1 goal lead in the 88th minute, their star strikers were back there with their defence. They were not experts in that; but they did it anyway, because the purpose of the team demanded it.

Barcelona FC
Barcelona FC. Image courtesy of José Porras via Wikipedia

Their coach, Pep Guardiola, prepared them: he set out what he wanted them to achieve, and let them do it. He trusted and believed in his team. He equipped them with the skills they needed to do the job then left them to accomplish it.

If we want our teams to be similarly successful, we must do something similar.

Assemble a small group of talented individuals with a range of skills. Harness their creativity an energy to achieve a shared goal and common vision.

Give them the freedom to go and do it how best they see fit. Let them be self-organised, self-motivated.


Which brings me back to my team … we had a session this week where we thought about the skills the team needed, and what each of us individually brought to it.

We’re building a picture of what we have, what we lack, and where we’re a bit sparse.

The Digital First team at work
The Digital First team at work. We do a lot of talking.

Because if the team lacks certain capacities  – if we rely on people outside our team for certain things – then we impede flow. We can’t get work from in progress to done quickly enough.

The team needs to be cross-functional or it cannot work efficiently. If we all sit within teams of people with similar skills we are inefficient. If we are not collaborating with people with different skills from us we are missing opportunities to learn, to change, to be better.

If I am Lionel Messi, I can learn something about defending from Carles Puyol. I will never be as good at as he is, but I will be able to fill in.

So, am I a part of a team, or just a bunch of very talented people doing pretty much the same thing?

Turns out, we do have a variety of skills, which we exhibit in varying degrees. But we do complement each other.

But  there are deficiencies, there are shortfalls. Things we know we could do better. As a team.

And we can resolve that by working in self-organising teams with others outside our normal sphere to achieve a common goal.

So let’s do that.

And let’s measure the team’s performance, not each individual’s. That’s not smart.

I'm a service designer in Scottish Enterprise's unsurprisingly-named service design team. I've been a content designer, editor, UX designer and giant haystacks developer on the web for (gulp) over 25 years.

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