What Are Teams and When Do They Work? Part 1 in a 3-Part Series on Teams

Lupe Poblano

At CompassPoint, we know that understanding how to work in a team is an indispensable part of leading with others. Working collaboratively helps organizations learn together, unearths new ideas, and can bring unheard voices to the table. Project Director Lupe Poblano explores teams in this new blog series. In Part 1, he explores common definitions for teams and outlines the circumstances that help them function at their highest level.


Increasingly, we in the nonprofit sector are using cross-functional teams to get things done. The literature suggests that “teams improve both the efficiency and quality of organizational performance. Using teams provides the flexibility needed to operate in today’s rapidly changing business world” (Levi, Daniel, Group Dynamics for Teams, Sage Publications, 2011). When used correctly, forming teams within our organization can be a great way to leverage our collective strengths, perspectives, skills, and experiences to achieve commonly desired goals. The key questions we’ll consider in this post are: what are teams, when do we form them, and what contributes to team success?

What Are Teams?

It’s a deceivingly simple yet complex question, isn’t it? Let’s start with the definition of what a team is, because that actually determines how we assemble and utilize them. Are teams simply a collection of human beings? Do teams have a specific purpose?  Are they temporary? Permanent? Do they have responsibility or authority—or neither?!? Do they perform tasks? Make decisions? These are really important questions, and how you think about what a team is will affect how you assemble and participate in teams within your organization.

Many team development and management writers have interesting (and different) definitions of what a team is. Daniel Ilgen, for instance, defines a team as “two or more people who work interdependently over some time period to accomplish common goals related to some task-oriented purpose” (Effective Team Performance Under Stress and Normal Conditions, Michigan State University East Lansing, 1993). John R. Hollenbeck describes a team as “small groups of interdependent individuals who share responsibility for outcomes” (Human Resource Management: Gaining a Competitive Advantage, McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2012). For our purposes, let’s combine some of their best thinking and use this definition going forward: a team is two or more individuals working interdependently, with clear boundaries, clearly defined authority, membership stability, and who share responsibility for outcomes.

When Do We Form Teams? 

The above definition of a team already gives us some sense of when we form teams (see—I told you the definition would be important!). Teams are useful when they have to collaborate to be successful, they have clear goals, and team membership is somewhat stable over time. For me, one of the main takeaways is that the composition of teams should be intentional. In other words, it should be the right group of people—not simply a “coalition of the willing” or a committee of the “volun-told.” Think of this in your own context. Raise your hand if you’ve been frustrated by a team you’ve been on that didn’t have anyone who could make a decision. Or raise your hand if you’ve been frustrated by a sense of rotating group membership, where people are constantly being added to or dropped from the group. Now raise your hand if it seemed that the task wasn’t suitable for a team (someone just decided they needed more hands on deck).  Is everyone raising their hands? 

So what are the necessary conditions to form teams within our organizations? Although far from exhaustive, refer back to this checklist, adapted from Daniel Levi’s Group Dynamics for Teams, before deciding to assemble or join a team:

Checklist: When are Teams Appropriate?
1. The work contains at least some skilled activities (requiring members to leverage their knowledge and judgment).
2. Group has members with the positional (or designated) authority to represent relevant parts of the organization.
3. Turnover in the team in minimal.
4. The team has adequate resources (e.g. financial, staffing, and skills or training support).
5. Valid performance evaluation and feedback systems exist for both the team and its members.
6. The tasks are highly interdependent so members must work together.
7. The team can form a meaningful unit within the organization, with clearly defined boundaries (i.e. not everyone in the organization can participate on the team at the same level at the same time).
8. The organizational culture supports effective teams
  • Participative management style as a norm throughout the organization;
  • Organizational culture empowers individuals and teams to make decisions;
  • Communication is open; information flows vertically and horizontally across the organization;
  • Work environment is non-hostile (fear results in staff being defensive and distrustful).

Obviously, there are very few times in an organization’s life cycle where all these conditions exist in perfect harmony. That’s okay! The salient point is that we need to be more careful and conscientious when forming teams in order to ensure their success. Successful teams need the right group of people, a suitable task, an effective combination of resources, and a supportive context from the organization.   

When are Teams Successful?  

Intuitively, we know the transformative potential of teams—the power to have great outcomes and positively impact those who are on the team. Almost always, a successful team “reaches its goals. While completing the task, team members develop social relations that help them work together and maintain the group. Participation in teamwork is personally rewarding for the individual because of the social support, the learning of new skills, or rewards given by the organization” (Hackman, J. R., “The design of work teams.” In J. Lorsch (Ed.), Handbook of organizational behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1987).

Think about the successful team you were on. It might have been a high school sports team or a recent work team. I’m willing to bet that you still remember the experience because 1) your team achieved its goal, 2) you created some kind of bond with your teammates, and 3) you personally grew in the process as well. This is what success on teams looks and feels like. And the hope of getting there consistently is one of the reasons why we keep coming back to this notion of teaming.

So How Do We Go from Dream to Reality?

This is where things get tricky, right? We might think of these three keys to team success as mutually exclusive, or at least three very separate siloes. However, if we know that the key to successful teams is achieving goals, developing healthy social relations, and fostering the learning and growth of its individual members, then how to we make all those things happen, without compromising any of them individually? We will only touch upon a portion of the many options available to create successful teams. Trainings are a great way to learn and practice new skills around such things as project completion, conflict resolution, meeting facilitation, and managing others.

Also, another helpful tool is a relatively new concept: team coaching. You might be familiar with individual coaching. Perhaps you have a coach. Coaching is a great way for an individual to consider how leadership shows up in a team environment. Individual coaching serves as a container for self-awareness. Team coaching, however, works with the entire team—each person’s processes, relationships, and ability to make meaning using knowledge and experience. Team coaching can help a team develop healthy social relations and make learning and growth explicit team goals. Team coaching is most helpful at the beginning, midpoint, and end of a team project (Coutu, Diane. Why Teams Don’t Work, Harvard Business Review, May 2009). Team coaching can allow your team to become stronger as a unit and ensure there is a framework for individual development without compromising the articulated team goal. It can foster a sense of team interdependence. 

As we’ve seen, we know that teams can and have been successful for us personally and hopefully for our organizations too. In this post we’ve learned that individual and team success go hand-in-hand. Next time we’ll talk about how teams make decisions.

Lupe Poblano, MS, is a Project Director at CompassPoint. Most recently Lupe served as the Director of Evaluation, Learning, and Strategy at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco. You can reach him by email. Follow him on twitter at @LupePoblano. 


Additional resources:

Team Agreements: A Path to Peace by Alicia Santamaria (explores how teams can work better through team agreements)

4 Ways to Deal with Team Conflict by Marissa Tirona (tools and approaches for dealing when teamwork goes awry)

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