Defining Teams

Basic

difficulty

Stage 1

Agile IQ® Level

Foundation

Practices

Agile

Framework

Introduction

How do you define what makes a team? How are teams different from just a group of people working together?

More than an existential thought exercise, actually figuring out the memberships, relationships, and responsibilities of individuals all working together is critical to increasing team effectiveness.

Several definitions of teams are used in the academic literature, in some of which the words for “team,” “group,” “work group,” and “work unit” are used as synonyms while in others these are seen as different things. A useful definition reads that a team is:

"A collection of individuals who are interdependent in their tasks, who share responsibility for outcomes, who see themselves and who are seen by others as an intact social entity embedded in one or more larger social systems (for example, business unit or the corporation), and who manage their relationships across organizational boundaries. "

Cohn & Bailey (1997, p241)

This definition clearly distinguishes between teams and groups.

Group work

People in groups are related through a traditional traditional bureaucratic work organisation. They might coordinate their work, but their tasks are separate, not truly interconnected, and not related to a shared goal. A person does their work, hands it to the next person, and gets on with their next task.

Team work

Teams goals, though, can’t be achieved with this way of working. Team goals can only be realised by the whole team. Their focus is on achieving the goal first before taking on new work. Work in a team isn’t, therefore, optimised for the efficiency of one of its members over the others. 

Anti-patterns: Are you really a team?

Many organisations create teams yet because of the structure of 'manager led' work, individuals are tasked with delivering highly specific outcomes that don't necessarily require input from their team members.

Benefits of team work

  • More effective
  • Faster decision-making
  • Increased productivity 15-20%
  • Higher quality
  • Achieve goals more often
  • Feel more useful
  • Feel more challenged

EXPECTATIONS

Shared Goal

Teams perform better if the goals that guide work are clear, specific, and challenging rather than vague, ambiguous, and unchallenging. Goals activate motivational mechanisms that stimulate performance. Four stimulating mechanisms are: direction, effort, perseverance, and strategy (Latham & Locke, 1991, 2013). 

Cross-functional

Agile teams are cross-functional, meaning the members have all the skills necessary to create value each Sprint. They are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how. 

Agile teams are designed so they don’t have to rely on people outside of the team to deliver value. Relying on people outside the team to, for example, approve work or provide quality assurance, delays the delivery of value.

Anti-patterns: Multi-disciplinary teams

Agile teams are not multi-disciplinary teams. Agile teams are cross-functional.

multi-disciplinary-vs-cross-functional

The Law of the Small Team

Agile teams are small enough to remain nimble and large enough to complete significant work within a Sprint, with typically 10 or fewer people. In general, smaller teams have less management overhead for communication and are, therefore, more productive.

If agile teams become too large, should consider reorganising into multiple cohesive agile teams, each focused on the same product. Therefore, they should share the same goal.

Key Team Roles

Scrum is used by 80% of organisations to establish guardrails for teams. With this agile framework comes three essential roles:

  • Product Owner: Responsible for delivery of value aligned to organisational goals.
  • Scrum Master: Accountable for ensuring that team operate within the guardrails and that agile is effective in delivering enterprise outcomes – lower costs, higher quality, higher productivity. The Scrum Master isn’t an agile project manager or a delivery manager. They help the team be effective through promoting self-organisation and cross-functionality.
  • Team members: Scrum refers to the people developing solutions and delivering the work, regardless of what it is, as “developers”.

Cross-Functional Teams

While most company’s departments are organised by expertise and purpose, cross functional teams are groups of people with different viewpoints, skill sets, and areas of expertise who collaborate to achieve a common objective.

Cross functional teams are groups of people from various departments in an organisation—such as marketing, product development, quality assurance, sales and finance—who work together to achieve a common goal. Often, cross functional teams are organised to complete a specific project, but they can also be created with a more ongoing purpose.

Benefits of a Cross-Functional Team

Cross functional teams break through the “silos” of a traditional organisational structure so that the team can see the big picture. By working with members who have varying viewpoints, expertise and backgrounds, the collective team can more efficiently tackle problems and achieve the goals of a project. They can also anticipate hurdles earlier in the process because each department has input throughout the process, rather than a project moving from department to department.

Cross-Functional Teams Promote the Goals of the Organisation

When departments operate primarily within their specific vertical, they often focus on their own goals without seeing the big picture. For instance, the sales team may be concerned about securing new customers but they lose sight of the personnel issues involved with an overwhelmed crew. The finance team might be so focused on the bottom line that they are hesitant to take on the risks of launching a new product line. And the marketing team might be so eager to launch a new brand or product that they aren’t focused on product development challenges.

By putting together people with seemingly competing day-to-day goals, you can ensure that the goals of the organisation are advanced throughout the entire project.

Cross-Functional Teams Increase Efficiency

Instead of a project moving through one department before being passed off to the next, cross functional teams increase the efficiency of project completion. Because you are working with personnel from other departments, the team can address potential challenges before moving too far along in the process.

For instance, if the product development department creates an innovative new product, only to find out that the sales department has concerns about actually selling the product, there will be wasted time in the project. On the other hand, if the sales department works alongside product development in a cross functional team, the potential challenges can be addressed earlier on to minimise lost time and sunk costs.

Cross-Functional Teams Can Increase Innovation

Departments often become so focused on sharpening their own skills and achieving their specific goals that they lose sight of the big picture. Siloed departments can get stuck in a rut. But by combining different viewpoints and knowledge, cross functional teams can increase innovation of both processes and products. They can find holistic solutions to meet the needs of the organisation because they can see the perspectives of other functionalities.

Component vs Feature Teams

A feature team is a development team that implements end-user functionality end-to-end. In contrast, a component team owns an architectural building block, layer, subsystem, or a collection of technical components or services.

Component teams:

  • Dependencies between teams to deliver a single piece of functionality.
  • Hand-overs between teams, increasing the time to deliver value.
  • Lower transparency of the actual state of an integrated increment.

Feature teams: 

  • Can deliver a slice of functionality each Sprint.
  • Fewer team-to-team dependencies.
  • Typically zero hand overs with other teams.
  • Improved transparency of the actual state of an integrated increment given the development is with that single team.
component-team
feature-team

Download

Download the team playbook.

  • 5 different team designs, including HR, software, marketing and finance.
  • Teams vs work groups.
  • Why are there no sub roles in agile teams?

References

Cheney, G., Christensen, L. T., Zorn, T. E., Ganesh, G. (2011). Organizational communication in an age of globalization: Issues, reflections, practices (2nd ed., pp. 215251). Long Grove, ILWaveland Press.

Delarue, A., Van Hootegem, G., Procter, S., Burridge, M. (2008). Teamworking and organizational performance: A review of survey-based research. International Journal of Management Reviews, 10, 127148.

Loerakker, B., and Kirsten van de Grift, K. (2015). The effectiveness of self-managed teams and self-leading teams measured in performance , quality of work life and absenteeism

Sutherland, J. and Schwaber, K. (2020) The Scrum Guide. The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game.

Van der Hoek, M., Groeneveld, S., Kuipers, B. (2016) Goal Setting in Teams: Goal Clarity and Team Performance in the Public Sector.

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