“And I will choose your companions to go with you, as far as they will or fortune allows. The number must be few, since your hope is in speed and secrecy. […]
This is the actual line on Book 2 of The Lord of The Rings when Lord Elrond sets what will later be known as The Fellowship of The Ring. The scene is quite less dramatical than the one on the action movie, but it makes quite a lot more sense. If you have only seen the picture and haven’t read the book, I hope you do. Lots of things for you to discover there, specially if you are into team or people management.
So what Elrond did was put together a Team, a task force if you prefer, and he actually set expectations (as in “you need to protect the ring bearer”) and goals (1. carry The Ring to Mordor, 2. Throw it into the pits of Mount Doom), and he appointed some roles though these were not really explicit. He did give up 2 key ones the leader (Aragorn) and the advisor (Gandalf). Elrond suddenly looks a lot like any manager does when trying to put together a team for a very specific and short-term mission he has to fulfill.
Back to the real world now. Before we go through trying to understand what Teamwork really means within a Company, we should probably try to understand what a Team is and it differs from other concepts. So, let’s see what the Merriam-Webster online dictionary says about it:
: a group of people who compete in a sport, game, etc., against another group : a group of people who work together : a group of two or more animals used to pull a wagon, cart, etc.
I underlined the obvious keyword there: group. It is a group of people (or animals it seems) that’s doing something, together. By group we all understand the same: more than 1, so you get groups of 2, or 10, or more or less, but always more than 1.
But are groups necessarily teams? Is there a difference between an actual group of people and a team of people? Based on the definition above, there is, and the second keyword for it that is no other than “together”. A group of people working together implies a common agreement or compliance on what is being worked on, and what’s to be achieved. Sometimes it is just a specific task, sometimes it’s a complex process but regardless of the what, the how always stays the same: together.
I couldn’t highlight this more. Wait, I can: a group of people doing something together. There you go, good, bold and underlined definition of what a Team is.
A final note on Teams before I move to Teamwork though: Teams can be involuntary as well as voluntary. Sometimes teams are put together by mere chance, and some other times they are designed to work a certain way. One example of each: a group of people trapped in a subway due to an accident can quickly become a team, formed by chance, in order to get out of there and make certain nobody gets hurt. That would be an involuntary team, created with a specific goal (survive / get out of the subway) and where there are no specifics roles set: they will appear as they go, and they understand survival depends on them. A designed team is easier: just take any construction team and there you go: they know what each one and each other does, they work in unison, their goal is to build something and everyone has a specific task. They are all aware that they have to do something to achieve another something, and they understand success depends entirely on them, the processes and the responsibilities each one of them has. A designed team is what we are used to in our works actually: we are there for a Purpose. Each one of us has a role to play and responsibilities around those.
A Team is a living organism, and when it’s designed it lives in a context not in a vacuum. Each Team member is there for a reason and the interaction between them is what ultimately creates results, be them great or not the ones expected. By tapping into those, the Team’s success becomes a reality and not just a possibility.
So what is Teamwork?
The question seems easy enough and the answer is up there, in the same question, or is it? The most common mistake I’ve seen is to consider that two or more colleagues working on a same Team can actually work together. Another misconception I’ve found is that Teamwork is easy to achieve: you just throw them a bone and they’ll figure it out. Possibly a typical error of new managers is to consider that Teamwork is something you can force people into just because you’re the manager.
I guess there are as many definitions of Teamwork as there are people writing about Teamwork. I don’t really expect mine to be the best, or the most accurate one for that matter, but I will tell you this: if from it a discussion is born and you start re-thinking on what Teamwork really means to you, then I guess it might mean that my definition is as good any other one, and maybe makes a bit more sense.
You see, when a team works together (that is when everyone does what they are expected to do) it is perfectly normal to expect a given result. But that’s not teamwork, is it? The general conception around the concept is that it means that the team helps the team, rather than that everyone does what they are supposed to be doing. I would say that conception is, in general terms correct but unfinished. Even if the tasks each member of the team has been assigned to do is perfectly described or defined for them, even if everyone knows what is expected from them in every single situation they will face, even if the manager or the leader of that team is always there for them…even in this idilic situation, something can go wrong. Whatever happens when that happens, affects and redefines the team, and those are the moments when, if things work, we call “Teamwork”.
So I guess we could say that Teamwork is really a collection of moments and their resolutions, that happens only when certain crisis arise. Teamwork would then mean something like “we’re good at sorting stuff out”, but then again I have to say: it feels as an unfinished definition. Teamwork to me goes beyond whatever crisis we may have. It doesn’t start with the leader of a team, and it doesn’t end with the resolution of a crisis.
Teamwork is to a Team, what blood is to a body: it nurtures it, it cleanses it, it brings life to the Team and helps it function. It’s absence, as much as the lack of blood in a body signals death, can only bring the end to a Team.
I believe Teamwork to be more than a concept: it is a context given not by the rules of a Company but actually by the Team itself. You can certainly put on processes and agreements to make certain the Team has the needed space for it’s development and growth, and maybe for what the Company believes to be the “welfare” of the Team, but it is really the Team the ones who decides what to take, and what to do with that.
Teamwork implies collaboration, that much is obvious but what else does it implies? So far in my experience as both an Individual Contributor and as a Manager, I’ve seen that it does imply other things, and the ones I can recall (and value) the most right now are:
Honesty. A team that lies to themselves can’t function properly. Teams that really work well together have a very intimate honesty between them: they will face whatever problem might wait for them out there, but they will do so with no secrets between them. Those that lie are not welcomed into the team, and those who are already there are given the chance to correct it by being honest.
Empathy. People are allowed secrets in a Team, but those who make that team are always ready to support one or the other one if one of those secrets comes up and for some reason hurts that person or the rest of them. The Team works from an empathetic point of view to first understand and then support that person.
One for the team makes a Team for all. As easy as the 3 Musketeers. Alexander Dumas got it right: if you fight for the Team, it will fight back for you. Teams that are highly successful are those teams that fight to make certain everyone that’s part of it succeeds: if everyone in the team is successful, then the team can only be successful as well.
Self-awareness. A team that knows it’s a team is by far stronger than a team that doesn’t recognize itself like one. Those who understand they are all together into something fight with similar strength and on a similar direction. Those who don’t present open or unprotected flanks, leave things unfinished and become sloppy. A team that understands it’s a Team rarely needs someone from the outside to tell them what they need. A team where there are awkward silences and hidden agendas is a team at risk of being disolved at one point.
Teams heal themselves, Teams learn. Sometimes someone from a Team departs, by will of his/her own, or by the will of others. Sometimes the team takes a big blow when transformations happen, and sometimes when they need air, they lower their guard and something bad happens. A team that’s working together will fix this, and overcome those results by simply applying the principles we discussed above: honesty, empathy, self-awareness. A team that recognizes it’s in pain or wounded will work on getting better, learning from mistakes of the past or unplanned crises.
I am pretty sure you, as well as many others, can add a lot to this list. Please do if you feel like doing it, but as this article might be getting too long I want to close down into what Teamwork, after all of these words, means to me.
It means opportunity. A team that works together to achieve goals, a team that leverages their manager, or their sponsors or champions, or the knowledge of everyone on that team, that team is set to succeed in whatever they do.
As much as “Ohana” means “Family” for Lilo & Stitch (see below, great movie as well), “Teamwork” means “Opportunity” to me. The opportunity to grow, the opportunity to learn, to become something different and maybe help others do the same.
Regardless of you being in the corporate world or small business one, this opportunity might mean everything you’re looking for and it might have been out there in front of you for a long time: by leveraging, supporting and making your team successful, you so become successful too. The way to achieve this? Easy.