People often use the words group and team synonymously – but the word “team” actually implies something more than a group. A team is a group of people with a sense of coherence, connection, and shared purpose. For leaders, understanding the difference between a group vs a team is essential to creating success.

Group vs. Team

What’s the fundamental difference between groups vs teams? Whether a group functions as a team depends on the level of cohesion.

Let’s use an analogy: You could have a group of people at a cocktail reception chatting and networking and having a great time. But if you put those people on a soccer pitch and they’re just standing around talking and having a great time, that’s not going to win the soccer game. 

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What’s going to win the soccer game is a team that works together toward a shared purpose and objective. The group may have a shared purpose, but they may not be really working together. They may not be cohesive and coherent.

Characteristics of a Successful Team

A group is a collection of people. A team is a focused group that works closely together to achieve something. The best definition of a team is that people on the team are working together to create shared success. 

illustrating the differences between a group vs team

#1: Shared Purpose and Shared Work

A good team has a shared purpose or goal. This is one of the distinctions of a group vs a team: without a shared purpose or goal, you don’t actually have a team. That shared purpose or goal creates the connection that allows people to function together. 

Working in a team also means shared work and shared results. There are things that people on the team do together to create the outcome.

In a group if everyone is working on different things and there’s no shared work, it’s not a team. A customer support group is not a team because everyone’s working on different tickets. If they worked together to get customer issues resolved, they would become a team. If they all work independently, it’s not a team. There may be a shared purpose, but there’s no shared work. There is nothing that binds the people together.

#2: Team Boundary

The next characteristic of a team is that there’s a team boundary. It says, “As a team, we are responsible for this.” There are things that the team is not responsible for that are outside of the team boundary.

four people gathered around a table, identifying the difference between group vs team

A team boundary says, “We as a team are responsible for whatever is playing on the field: a soccer game, a technology team, a team building a product. We’re not responsible for other things like looking after the soccer pitch or the changing rooms or managing the broadcasting. We have a very clear focus on our shared goal and purpose. The other stuff is not our responsibility.” 

The team is clear about who’s on and off the team and who’s supporting the team. Team boundaries are not fuzzy; they’re very crisp. Some people are not on the team, but they support the team. That is their role and relationship with the team. 

#3: Team Identity

A very crisp boundary creates a team identity. You see this when teams create their own name, emblem, or logo for themselves. They have a shared identity that binds them together. That’s what helps them move away from “Me” thinking (each person optimizing for themselves) to “We” thinking (each person optimizing for the team or organization). 

When people move from, “I’m working alone to perform well” to, “We are working together to perform as a team,” that shift in identity creates high performance. People move away from a default egotistical behavior pattern of trying to optimize for themselves to a model of optimizing for the team.

a business woman writing on a post-it note with a man watching

#4: Team Size

There’s a rule from Luke Hohmann that’s very powerful: “More than eight no collaborate.” The more people you add to a team, the more difficult it is for them to work together. Once you get beyond eight, it’s important to start breaking that team into sub-teams. 

Let’s come back to soccer as an analogy: You’ve got the offensive team and the defensive team, and there are different coaches working with and training them as different groups. When they’re playing on the field, there are 10 players at a time, but they’re working in subgroups to win the game. 

There’s a very natural decomposition into working in smaller structures: teams within teams. If you need to get something big done, you might have many teams that are working together to achieve that result. But the team is really the basic unit of operation. Research shows the best size for a team is actually about five to eight people.

#5: Working Together

Good groups transform into teams when they start working together. They say, “I’ve got this issue. I’m going to get someone better able to handle it for you because we want to give you the best outcome as our customer.” You can start to see groups move toward team-type characteristics in order to create the best outcome or the highest performance.

hands holding two puzzle pieces that are about to fit together

Who decided that everyone should work on a different ticket? That comes from a traditional business approach rather than one that actually looks after the customer’s needs. 

#6: Helping Others

This is what sets apart groups vs teams: members of a group say, “It’s not my responsibility to help others; I’m supposed to focus on my own performance.” In a team it’s, “Of course I’ll help because we’re working toward a shared purpose.”

In a group, the teamwork is low, and in a team, the teamwork is high (There is no “I” in team). In a group, the level of psychological safety is low, and in a team, the psychological safety is high. Most low-performance teams have more of the characteristics of a group than a team. 

#7: Versatility

Having five to eight people on a team works well because that gives each person a space to have trust and connection. There are some challenges and trade-offs because, if you want to have all the skills you need to be successful, the team needs to start to get bigger. As the team starts to get bigger with different skills, you run into this challenge: How does everyone stay productive? 

a woman smiling and reading papers at her desk

This leads to the requirement of wanting people who can do more than just one thing. Think about a really good soccer player – a good midfielder is able to support offense as well as defense. That’s what we’re looking for in people to make a good team: people who don’t limit themselves to their assigned role.

We have a very successful case study, from one of our students. He was a leader of a large group that was also slow in delivery and low performance. So low that the customer gave them a deadline, 1 year to complete the project with a fixed budget. This leader was in a tough position, perform or everyone was out- the whole group would be fired.

He did what he had never done before, following the SHIFT314 approach and the SELF™ system, he gathered the group together to solve the problem. The group realized that they were not acting as a team. Through workshopping the problems they discovered they needed to skill up. With no budget they solved the problem by cross pollinating the teams to learn from each other. The skills and training was at no extra cost, only time, yet a shorter time period because they had a desire to improve, a collective evolutionary purpose.

This case study has a great ending, they delivered the project in 10 months and seven hundred thousand dollars ($700,000.00) under budget. This leader went on to be promoted and this group became an example of high performance for the rest of the organization. 

In a team, people should say, “What can I do to support my team? What skill do I need to develop to help support our team functioning as best?” Sometimes this can mean staying very specialized. Other times it’s about stretching and taking on new skills and capabilities to support the team functioning at its best. 

a group of five people in a conference room, three are clapping and two are high-fiving each other

Autonomous Teams May Create Silos!

Teams are an incredibly powerful construct to unlock high performance in organizational systems. A common trap is to make teams autonomous and self-organizing. Most people are not ready for that level of responsibility and have difficulty balancing the needs of a team with the needs of the larger organization. It often makes a team into the new silo within an organization. Too strong a team identity can prevent teams from working with other teams to optimize what’s most important: organizational success. 

Healthy teams require a sense of interdependence among teams to create the highest levels of organizational performance. Often it is better to focus on interdependent, responsible teams as a starting place to develop responsible people. In this way, people optimize results not just for their team but for the larger group and organizational system. For further exploration of these ideas, please see: Flat Organizational Structure? It’s a TRAP!

You Ship Your Team

There is a saying from Jim McCarthy and Core Protocols: “You ship your team.” The performance and products you ship to customers are a reflection of how effective your team is. We invite you to use the characteristics of healthy teams (above checklist) to identify the opportunities to become a real team. Go, team!

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