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The Secret to Managing Teams is a website that invites employees, would-be and actual, to evaluate businesses as employers. Between this kind of playing field leveling application and an upcoming workforce that eschews long term commitment, employers are trying to make their workplaces desirable.

That’s a good thing. Workplaces should be desirable. But, the inclination has to be more than a jump onto a fad bandwagon. A colleague of mine said, “Why does every firm think I want to play foosball?” Open workspace designs, while fashionable, detract from productivity according to a recent New York Times article. Creating a team framework does not automatically endow a business as being innovative, the holy grail of desirability. Whether spurred by trendiness or not, many teams are formed with the same hastiness as these other lures of desirability. The result is that some teams are not really teams at all. This makes managing groups tricky; there is no one size fits all method. Instead, there are three tacks of managing teams – Collaboration, Coordination, and Control. Knowing which to emphasize lies in differentiation.

• Collaboration

A true team requires collaboration. A team is true when the output of the team’s efforts cannot come about unless each teammate contributes. Design teams, problem-solving teams, marketing teams and organization development teams are true teams. The perfect product, answer, campaign or structure depends on the inputs of multiple qualified people. Of course, there is no guarantee that each person contributes equally. Nor should there be. The act of collaboration is a creative process, yielding the best outcomes with the fewest constraints. This requires managers to adopt a more laissez faire stance, getting out of the way to let the chemistry of individuals’ interactions find insights and create ideas. Yet, a manager’s job is to regulate, making sure that a collaborative team’s pursuits don’t meander or miss the mark altogether. While management in this scenario is light-handed on the surface, the manager is never uninvolved. Rather, she is a facilitator, very much present in the process. Offering prompts and directing discussions, the manager tethers the collaborative process to the mission of the organization and intent of the project. Involvement through observation also allows the manager to assess roadblocks. For teams charged with problem solving, for example, the manager can determine if they are getting the right information upon which their decisions rely. Here, managers act as connectors to sources outside the group or “servant leaders” as a recent Harvard Business Review article describes.

The manager’s presence in the collaborative process also permits him to assess individual performance. Without a scripted path, there are no hard metrics by which employees are typically assessed. Instead, an individual’s performance in a collaborative team is judged by his contribution. While teams comprised of like-minded individuals can be engaging, there is always the oft deadly trap of Group Think. The team’s performance must rest on each individual’s judgment skills and their respective courage to disrupt comfort for the sake of forward movement and project integrity. Yet, even these positive qualities need to be bounded. Not going too far with individualism requires respect for harmony and others’ expertise and the requisite emotional intelligence to keep one’s ego in check. These are subtle attributes for which managers must remain vigil. Whether a manager provides coaching to get an errant team member on track or team building exercises to coalesce a group showing signs of splinter or stall, managing a true team requires finesse.

• Coordination

Professionals working together create synergy when their efforts are coordinated. Such a group, while bearing the moniker “team”, is really best described as a confederation. Each member of the confederate-type team can perform work independently, up to a point. For instance, lawyers working on a case or architects drafting plans for a building work alone and are guided by their training and rules of their profession. This is not to say that their respective projects are not reliant on others in their group. But, it is a sequential reliance. The output of one is the input of another. Similar to the collaborative team, a manager’s involvement in a confederation need not be intrusive. But, the connections among parts do require project management interventions. Timelines with definite deadlines and deliverables need to be created and known. Here, the manager has the big picture and offers structure so that workers can “stick to the knitting.” Managers sensitize employees to when they have to complete tasks and how their pieces fit into the larger project. This gives individuals meaning and with everyone’s gaze trained on the same objective, a sense of camaraderie.

• Control

Some groups are really collectives of people doing parallel play. They all may be doing the same activity, but there is no interdependence. Job functions that lend themselves to parallel collectives are usually pegged to the organization’s proprietary products or services. Customer service and tech support centers are examples. Performance is not defined by other teammates or a profession’s code of ethics as they are with collaborative teams and confederations. Consequently, managing this type of group requires control that comes in the form of training and articulated procedures. Performance is determined by hitting many small targets consistently over time. Therefore, benchmarks and data capture are needed. Unlike the other groups who get their feedback more quickly and directly, managers must go out of their way to inform employees of their performance measures so that corrections happen on the spot rather than as a year end afterthought.


No matter what type of group they’re in, people are motivated, as Daniel Pink explained, by autonomy, mastery and purpose. Giving employees free reign to realize these, while still keeping true to the organization’s goals, is brought about by managing the right way for the right group. Differentiate one type of group from another and the right methods will become clear. Note: no ping pong table nor exposed brick is required.

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