Tour de Farce or Team de Force?

2008

It's probably fair to say that most followers and even casual observers of the recent Tour de France expected the race to throw up some drug cheats. True to form, we were not disappointed, with four riders failing drug tests and being disqualified (not to mention being taken away by the French police!).

But the race has also thrown up an interesting question. Why did the teams of the first two disqualified riders continue in the race, while another, Sunier Duval-Scott, withdraw all their riders? Commentators and keen followers of the sport are divided as to whether the two teams, while not legally obliged to do so, were morally obliged to withdraw.

But there might be another angle to this question.

Cycling is often seen as an individual sport – to the uninitiated it appears as if it's "everyone for himself". In fact, one of the most often asked questions by the uninitiated is "How can one man be helped by his team mates when they are all on separate bikes?"

As in key businesses, the answer of course is teamwork, particularly dependence on one another for success. For example in cycling, good teams protect their key riders by allowing them to draft along in the pack out of harm's way. Various team members will also take the lead in the pack at certain times to either slow or speed up the race to suit their key riders.

The best three teams on the tour in terms of overall results were Garmin, CSC and Columbia. It is commonly known that they also have the best morale, friendship and motivation. Interestingly these three teams are the only ones with independent (and extremely costly) drug testing.

Whilst these teams are truly multinational, the members of these teams are all great mates. Their on- the-road performances have been superb - perhaps largely due to their trust in and dependence on each other.

And with the testing of every single aspect of their health, there would be no way of cheating whilst in these teams - therefore 100% confidence by their fellow team mates and their bosses.

Compare this with the reports on some of the other teams where there is often a split within the team along nationality or language lines (often English, Spanish and Italian).

My contention is that the successful teams are just that, "teams", whereas those less successful operate as "groups". The way teams and groups are managed is quite different.

So, as managers, do you have a team or a group?

Many managers waste a lot of time trying to develop team work amongst a group of people reporting to them who do not have any need to work cooperatively together, or form up as a team. They all have different functions and they don't rely on each other to achieve their individual results.

In sport for instance, some Olympic "teams" are in fact groups, where the success of one member does not impact the success of others - individual swimming events, for example.

So, what's the difference between a group and a team?

Groups are formed by at least two people who interact and may share some interrelated task goals. However, the majority of the work group members do can be done without relying on other members of the group.

For example, often the "top team" of the organisation is in fact a group rather than a team. The members each have a defined area of responsibility - perhaps they all contribute to the broad goal of "organisation success" and perhaps there are elements of collaboration required to achieve that broad goal - but most of their own function may be successfully managed without having to rely on all of the other "top team" members.

Teams on the other hand, are groups that have three additional characteristics that set them apart. Their members must depend on one another to achieve their task goals. Each member must have a particular role to play in the team, and there must be team goals and objectives that can only be achieved by all the team members contributing to a team total output.

So in a team, If one member doesn't fulfill his or her role, it's not just that person's own functional area that fails, the whole team fails.

In sport, two good examples of where true teams are required, are cricket and baseball. In both sports, every member has to be able to bat – the team goal is to score more runs than the opposition; every member has to be able to throw and catch a ball – they must all have at least a basic level of hand/eye coordination. The team goal is to restrict the opposition to as few runs as possible; and some members, as well as being able to bat, throw and catch, need to have specialist skills if the team is to be successful. In baseball, for example, it's the pitcher and catcher; in cricket it's the bowler and wicket keeper.

In both games, teams can only be successful when every member of the team feels confident that he or she can rely on every other member of the team to make a competent contribution and do his or her job well.

So does your situation call for team work or group work?

The consequences of making that decision, can greatly impact your time management. Teams are likely to take more time initially to develop team work. However once they are working well, they can become almost self-managing.

It also impacts your style of communication. If you have a group, you will need to do far more one-on-one communicating – your style can also be more varied depending on the needs of the situation and the personality of the particular group member. With teams, there will be far more one-to-team and intra-team communication – your style will need to be far more collaborative (if not, morale and motivation is likely to drop off).

Finally, it has obvious implications for your "team building" initiatives. With groups, your efforts should be more directed to social interaction – collaboration will be built through personal relationships, not the dependence on one another for results. With teams, you will spend more time in problem-solving, team building exercises and team role definitions.

The recent Tour de France has provided us with a very strong message for managers. The team that had the best results – CSC – with overall winner, best young rider and best team - showed true team work throughout the race. People helped one another, leadership was shared - even the most experienced of commentators could not tell you who the team leader was until very late in the race.

In fact, the leadership of the team changed throughout the race with quite a number of members taking on the role as the situation demanded. Charles Handy would have been proud to see his "distributed leadership" model being played out so successfully in the World's biggest annual sporting event.

So if you have the responsibility for managing the performance of a group of other people, it may be time to consider the question – "do I have a group or a team?"

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden is MD of the Australian National Learning Institute and author of What To Do When You Become The Boss. He has been a boss many times over. He's also worked for many. Some of these relationships have been fantastic and some did not work as well as they might have.

Older Comments

Bob's article is spot on regarding the distinctions between teams and groups. There is nothing more frustrating than being part of a 'group' in which the manager holds people accountable as if they are a 'team'. With the focus on teamwork in organizations today, it is critical that managers understand the difference. Otherwise they create lots of unintended consequences through managing for the wrong outcomes.

MJ San Francisoc, CA

This is a good article and I have not thought about this distinction before so I've found it very useful.

I disagree though that the 'top-team' of an organisation should most likely be a group. I feel that in any organisation where the 'top-team' takes on this group mentality, it will be setting itself up to under-perform and do an injustice to the strategic nature of thinking and planning that must be done as a 'team'.

Mark Eden Isle of Wight, UK

Thanks for your comments Mark.

Please note my point about top teams often being groups. And yes, you are quite correct - where they take on this group mentality. Unfortunately, few 'top team' members and indeed CEOs realise the importance of this distinction and how it can impact the entire organisation.

As I said, it may often be the case of groups rather than teams at the top. Where it is not, and the group is truly working as a team, one can bet that the organsiation is probably performing pretty well, due no doubt to the leadership of the CEO. In these cases, they are still groups, but they display 'team work'. This is an important distinction.

There is however, at least one way where I have seen true groups (where members can largely succeed without the help of their fellow group members and will never become teams as per my definition) successfully display 'team-work*. That is where each group member's individual perfromance objectives contribute to the top person's objectives AND the group has agreed on a team based way of working (such as co-operation, commitment to decisions) AND they regularly assess and discuss their individual performance against their agreed criteria.

I trust this helps the 'top team' issue.

Kind regards

Bob

Bob Selden