In the previous blogs we looked at what teams really are and what the choice of team vs. workgroup means. Here we’re getting to the very foundations of team formation as a process.

In 1936, Kurt Lewin coined his famous formula:

B = f(P, E)

“(B)ehavior is a (f)unction of (P)ersonality and (E)nvironment”

P is who you are, E is where you are. 

Let us apply this to team formation.

The Question

Being in a team is not some magical state in which you find yourself. It is conscious and/or unconscious changes in your behavior. According to Lewin’s formula, there are only two reasons for this – either it is who you are, or the environment you’re in.

Given that Google has found that team effectiveness isn’t really about the people – what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. They discovered that psychological safety, dependability of others in the team, structure and clarity, meaning of work, and impact of the results are the top five characteristics that made teams really work. For an individual in those teams, all those factors are “environmental”. 

Obviously, my personality isn’t entirely irrelevant, but I feel that most of my own behavior is driven or cued by the environment in which I am. I behave differently when I’m with my family than when I’m with my friends or colleagues, or when shopping groceries.  

In other words, forming into a team is a natural human response to certain conditions in the environment.

So if we believe in all of the above, then it raises the question, what might be the environmental conditions that drive team formation process? What are the cues we take from the environment that trigger this process in us and in the group around us?

Word of warning – you are now being introduced to ideas that are wholly my own. I have not read these from some book, though it is a formulation of my own understanding which is founded on books and, of course, experience in real projects and teams. So this stuff is not scientifically researched and validated. I obviously welcome anyone who would want to scientifically research and validate this, or prove me wrong. 🙂

The Hypothesis

I have a hypothesis that there are three fundamental conditions that all need to be true for us humans to trigger the “team formation” program.

The three conditions are:

  1. Shared voluntary goal
  2. No-one can win alone
  3. Sufficient challenge

Now that I’ve shared them, they probably seem obvious. But I’ll look into them nonetheless since there may be some aspects that are not so obvious in them.

Shared Voluntary Goal

Shared voluntary goal means that we, as a group, have jointly committed to some objective that we want to reach. Such an objective must be a meaningful goal, something that we all want to achieve and something that we find important to reach. As I stated in the earlier blog, it isn’t sufficient that we agree on a goal and then split it to individual subgoals – the goal has to be the shared outcome. Or it may be the way we want to achieve it.

It also has to be something we personally make an internal commitment to. It isn’t sufficient if your boss tells you to join this project and commands you to reach the goal. In some cases, that’s where it all started, but sometime along the journey you developed also the internal commitment in your heart. You started caring for the goal and developed a desire to reach it. You also developed a willingness to make personal “sacrifices” to reach it.

But that condition alone isn’t sufficient. There are many workgroups where people actually do want the same thing, but still feel that they can divide and conquer the problem. In many workgroups people are there voluntarily and could leave if they wanted to. So we need something else, too.

No-One Can Win Alone

To become a team, the individuals in the group must feel that everyone’s contribution is necessary to reach the goal. They must also feel that they are dependent on each other in the race to “win”.

This second condition has another side to it – if anyone, at any time, feels that they are not needed to reach the shared goal, they will self-select out of the group. This means that teams evolve to be just as small as they can be. That’s why it’s very rare to see real teams larger than 7 to 9 people. In larger groups, some people will very easily take too much responsibility, and leave other people into lesser roles. These “less important people” will feel that their contribution isn’t valued and will emotionally distance themselves from the group. They usually still remain in the group, but follow orders and keep most of their opinions to themselves.

But even these two aren’t enough. We need one more ingredient.

Sufficient Challenge

It is possible that we have an environment where we want the same thing, and that we need everyone, but we still choose to use a workgroup approach. In fact, there’s a lot of those projects and product teams. We will only become a team when working as a workgroup is not good enough. So that’s the third condition – sufficient challenge.

Working as a workgroup – when we can focus on our own work – is always an easier choice for us. It’s easier emotionally, it’s easier logistically. It’s also more effective (as long as we know how to do the work), if we’ve never practiced working together with someone, or a group. So it’s natural we will select that approach whenever possible. But it’s also programmed into us that when we feel that approach is not sufficient for us to reach our goal, we start seeking team behaviors.

It’s Just a Starting Point

When these three conditions are all true in a group of people, the process of forming into a team begins. We don’t have to be aware of it, but the force the conditions create (a shared care for a goal, the need for each other, and the challenge that we need something more than currently available to reach the goal) starts pulling people forward on the journey. That force provides the energy needed to start challenging one another and the ways we are working in, to make commitments to each other and start adjusting our behaviors, to push each other for better performance and keeping up the continuous improvement, and ultimately working together as a tight-knit band.

The three conditions must also be maintained throughout the life of the team. If any one of them disappears (or maybe weakens), the process will start reversing itself. People start focusing more on individual goals and behaviors. The “teamness” starts disappearing.

When the conditions become true again, a once-team will likely very quickly re-adopt team behaviors.

But, most importantly, these conditions are not the only factors that influence the team formation process. We need much more to actually become a great team. In the next blog we will explore the team formation process and discuss Catalysts.