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What makes a good team?

Mick Lumsden

A common model for encouraging good team working is that of a rowing eight.  Pictures are shown of the perfectly balanced vessel zipping through the water as all the rowers work together in perfect unison.  Slogans attached to the image include such things as “Pulling in the same direction” and “Working in harmony”. 
My own view of this model is that while there are good points in the illustration, for most circumstances it does more harm than good.

What’s wrong with the model?

At a simple level a successful rowing eight needs only two types of people.  You need a cox who is small and canny on tactics and has a loud voice (or amplification) you need eight clones who will be as big and muscular as possible and be prepared to do as they are told.  It’s a model of command and control.

When you look at in this way you see that it might be appropriate for very simple tasks in which there is only one way of doing the job and the team succeed by following set procedures.  In these circumstances having a group of very similar people is fine.  An example might be factory workers who are required to work repetitively and robotically.
When this model is attached to anything more complex it has the potential to do great harm.  The person in charge may think that they are the only ones who should be steering and that the others should simply do as they are instructed.  And when people have multiple roles that the cox is unaware of they may be criticised for not producing.

Going deeper

If you want to be a highly successful rowing eight (rather than simply have fun on the river) you have to recognise that the team is bigger and many others have a critical role to play.  So for Cambridge to beat Oxford (as they did this year) it is essential to identify talented rowers and ensure that these rowers come to study at the university.  These rowers must then be assigned expert individual trainers and nutritionists to build up their strength and stamina.  In addition the rowers are going to spend a vast amount of time together and so there is a need to ensure that they get on well together – they likely need a coach who will not only mould them as a unit on the water but be mindful of the more human aspects, making sure they function well together socially as well as in the boat.
Focusing merely on the eight (or nine) may lead to having a rubbish coach or scout, which will lead to either poor performance or poor potential and would result in a win for the dark blues. Usually diversity is essential for success.

The Adair model

I like the model developed by John Adair. He stresses that to be successful in the long term it is important to keep focussed on three things: the Task; the Team and the Individual.  He argues that we are often too task focussed – we need to also consider the team AND the individual. People will not operate well in a team unless they feel valued and believe that their unique attributes are appreciated and their voices heard.  This is a far cry from the simple picture of eight men in a boat taking instructions.

The Band or Orchestra

Rather than a rowing eight, a better picture of a good team is perhaps an orchestra.  In an orchestra, individuals have unique and diverse skills.  The conductor helps them to work together (Team) to produce beautiful music (Task) but this is achieved by allowing each person to bring and express their own special skill (Individual).