Team Development: What Does It Mean in Terms of Team Coaching?

By Phillip Sandahl

Team Development

We’ve all been on teams and observed teams. There is an easy assumption to make that we know what a team is in terms of team development.

The reality is, especially in the workplace, the mental model most followed as a team paradigm is way out of date or simply inadequate for the requirements placed on teams today.

Team Development Redefined

Here is a way to illustrate that situation. Imagine you have a scrapbook of company teams going back several decades.

With all those photos it’s easy to compare team pictures from yesteryear with photos of teams today.

Back then, the top-down, model was the accepted norm and enough for the pace and process of work.

Yes, teams went through development stages. They still do. But Bruce Tuckman’s model was introduced in 1965 when there was a reasonable expectation that teams would be together for years.

Hence, Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing was a more or less predictable sequence in team development.

Today, teams go through the same four stages but since teams are so efficient these days, those four are likely to happen all at once.

That old photo shows an intact team because that was the only model. Describing it as “intact” would have been unnecessary. It was a standard team.

Do some research and you will find information about cross-functional, virtual, agile, matrix, networked, and distributed teams to name a few.

Innovation came to team structure out of necessity given the evolution of technology, the demand for better results and a faster pace.

Every aspect of what we traditionally think of as a reference source for a team definition has changed or adapted.

Team meetings used to take place in the conference room down the hall and lasted an hour.

Today, you might see 15-minute huddles or teammates from across the globe connecting for a weekly meeting from their phone or laptop.

The grand halls of business are now wi-fi corridors. Welcome to the new world of teams.

Our goal here is to provide a definition of the word team, especially for the purposes of team development.

The truth is the term team development hardly begins to describe the variety we see in organizations.

Teams must be flexible enough to adapt to the ever-changing market, altering their strategies & restructuring to stay current.

Given the need to constantly be reorganizing, team coaches have more work to keep up with the many moving pieces which make up their team.

Team Size

Team Development and Team Size

Our data shows that the average size of a work team is between nine and 10. Senior leadership teams tend to be smaller; typically six to eight.

Project teams are larger, often 14 or more, but they include team members whose roles weave in and out during the course of the project.

The fact is, there isn’t a clear consensus about team size, let alone best team size.

The key to working with teams is more about understanding the process and having the flexibility to adapt, and much less about naming the form.

Here are a couple of examples that illustrate that idea:

In a conversation to discover the need and possible fit for team development, the team leader said that one challenge was the size of the team.

“How large?” we asked. “120″, was the reply. “Really??” It was a shocking number even after years of surprises.

However, we did not try to correct the team leader in his understanding. Instead, we got curious about the challenge. We embarked on learning the local language instead of insisting on our own.

In our terminology, when team size gets above 12 or 15, we start looking for teams within the “team”.

With much larger teams we refer to them as “meta-teams” as a way to distinguish the scale of the work.

Even meta-teams can show the essential qualities of team identity, common mission, interdependence, and co-responsibility for results.

They can also benefit from a thoughtfully designed team development process.

With a leadership team of eight, the team coaching will be different in terms of logistics and interaction with the meta-team.

A second example is a team form we have come to call a “cross-boundary” team. It describes a situation where the team is split into different sectors of one organization.

One of the underlying challenges that characterize cross-boundary teams is that they have competing priorities, and these differences often result in behavior that is lose-lose rather than win-win.

An example comes from advertising where there is an account/creative representation, and a product and marketing representative.

They have a common mission but often the need to meet their own goals affect the ability of the whole team to collaborate effectively.

It’s another example of paying attention to the process and conditions and less attention to defining the form.

Is This A Work Group? Or A Team?

Team Development Questions

So what we have here are guidelines for teams rather than a rigid definition. We want to find clear ways to distinguish between the dynamics of teams compared to the dynamics of a workgroup.

Instead of “either one or the other”, it’s best to see groups and teams on a continuum. The ultimate question will be, is the form suitable to the goals and demands placed on it?

The commission for the individual members depends more on the task at hand than any definition.

So how do we distinguish between a team and a workgroup? We should first consider if reaching the goal requires working together, or independently?

With workgroups, the output comes in the form of individual results, combined with others.

With a team, the output is the result of a combined team effort in addition to the individual team member’s efforts.

For example, if a workgroup is given the task to write a book, it’s as if each member writes a separate chapter.

The result is a collection of the efforts of individual contributors. An advisory group would be one example where workgroup makes sense.

Work output for a team would look more like the performance of an orchestra.

There are different sections to the orchestra but together they have one goal which is to make music. Each section makes a contribution to the whole but there is a common purpose.

Project teams are excellent examples of a team because they have a shared mission and must rely on each other to complete the project.

Ways to Distinguish Between The Two

Team Development Decisions

Goal Setting

In workgroups, attention is on individual goals; that’s the level of responsibility.

For teams, there are individual goals and Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s), but there is also a common mission and outcome. What the team creates by working together.


In work groups, accountability tends to be individual.

On teams, there is mutual responsibility for team goals. Some organizations have begun defining team KPI’s as well as individual performance.

Meeting Purpose

With workgroups, the purpose of most meetings is to report on individual progress and adjust the goals and deadlines as necessary.

With teams, there will be information sharing, discussion, and collaboration. There may be decisions to make as a team or team problems to address.

There may be disagreements about team goals or the process to achieve them.


For workgroups, the flow of the work is vertical, between the leader/manager and individual members. Interaction on a horizontal plane is minimal and transactional.

With teams, the flow of the work is horizontal and vertical. Effective relationship norms are important for team effectiveness.

Which form would be best in a specific situation? What would be the benefit of working as a workgroup versus a team?

Many senior leadership teams operate as cross-functional workgroups with each member of the “team” operating very independently.

These teams have an almost exclusive focus on the member’s individual area of responsibility and the team that person leads.

Stronger interdependence may not be required, but the benefit may also be overlooked. Working more collaboratively has the potential to speed up performance as there is a variety of skills each team member offers.

Note that on some senior leadership teams there is often an unspoken, “hands off” agreement between team members.

They are protective of their territory and many times, the status or rank that goes with the position. They want to avoid loss of control or independence in their operating style.

In the end, there is no master template that will give the “right” answer about which form is best. It is best to regularly assess the question, what best fits for this situation.

Who Is On The Team?

Team Development Assignments

An effective team works best when every member of the team participates. That seems obvious.

What is not so clear, is who should be included? After years of working with teams, it is always surprising those who are and are not included on the list.

To determine who should take part in the team development process takes some tact.

Determining Who Should Be Included

In order for the team to fulfill its mission, who needs to be included in the learning and development process?

If the team was facing an important turning point, what skills would be required and who represents those skills?

Where are the essential communication points in order for the team to operate optimally? Not just to accomplish the project at hand, or resolve one issue, but to sustain and improve performance?

In one case, following these guidelines, we determined that one person missing from the list was the team’s administrative assistant.

That person was the center of team communication and had invaluable insight into the everyday stresses of the team.

The admin provided an important perspective and practical experience that was otherwise lacking.

Wrapping Things Up

One perspective on the awareness of the nature of teams at work these days is that the work of team development is becoming much more interesting.

It is also complex, constantly changing and requires the ability to be nimble, resilient and adaptable.

To be open to learning is as important for team coaches as it is to team members, teams, and organizations.

In the whirl and swirl of everyday life at work, given the pressures and challenges that teams face, it’s also worth remembering to be compassionate.

Shopping Cart

Like what you've read here?

Subscribe to Our Blog!