What does ‘team’ really mean in the 21st century?

As someone who has spent many years running teams, I have always been fascinated by how our ideas about them have changed over time. Today I run an international team spread across the globe, with all the challenges and opportunities that brings. It is a role that I thrive in, but I also know that it is important to reflect sometimes on what this idea of the team really means now, in a world transformed by so many disruptive influences.

Technology in particular is constantly shaping and re-shaping the way we think about our business relationships, with our colleagues and with our clients and customers. It is bringing us closer together in many ways, but also allows us to be more physically remote from each other, at the same time. What are the implications of these kind of changes for the traditional concept of the team, and where does it leave the idea of teamwork in this new context?

It’s probably worth starting with what that ‘traditional’ idea of a team is. For  many of us, it has strong associations with sport – a group of people who are working together to achieve set goals within a certain timescale. So how has that changed in the 21st century? Here are just a few thoughts.

It’s all about the collective

Advances such as cloud technology, video streaming and smartphones have enabled modern teams to work in a much more collaborative way. This has obvious implications for teams such as mine, which are spread across the world at different sites. With some logistical planning we can meet, communicate and collaborate on projects in a way that ten years ago would have only been possible if we had worked in the same office building. But how has this changed the team dynamic? It think it has had a big impact in a number of ways.

One of the most important changes has been to the kind of goals that teams now have. Where it was once very much the case that each team had its own goals that it focused on achieving, in my experience team goals are now much more of a shared set of objectives. It has become much easier for individuals to not only work with other members of their own team, but also to work with other teams, with the effect that goals begin to transcend the traditional team structures.

A fluid and dynamic approach

All this means that rather than looking at how their team will achieve a particular goal, 21st century teams are generally far more willing to simply look at what it will take to get a goal achieved. The approach now is often to assemble the best group of individuals for the job, based on their abilities, rather than which team they are a part of. It is a much more fluid and flexible way of thinking about team structures – in step with a business environment in a state of constant change – and it has some interesting implications.

One of these is about the change in where people see responsibility lying. Whereas in the past they would only take on a task that fell within their remit, (and even avoid one that didn’t), the reality is that today employees understand that the best team for the job is simply a collection of the people most suited to that task. Responsibility for getting things done today is now in everyone’s hands – rather than just being left to those who have a specific job title or role.

Leadership rather than leaders

This idea of shared responsibility also has implications for our ideas of leadership. A few years ago, a leader was defined by their title, their authority and their position relative to everyone else. With our changing ideas of the team, I think that our ideas of leadership have changed too. We’re now in a position where leaders can be everywhere, at all levels of a business. When teams are fluid and created on the basis of each team member’s ability to contribute to a shared goal, then new leaders begin to crop up on a project by project basis. Rather than always taking direction from a single point of authority, our 21st century teams value these new leaders for the contribution and insight they can bring to a particular situation. Someone who leads in one task may not lead in the next.

An era of constant communication

Of course another key element in this changing idea of the team is communication. I’ve touched already on the ways in which technology has transformed our ability to communicate and collaborate, but it’s worth reiterating – that clear, constant and consistent communication is absolutely essential to the effective running of a modern team. It is the oil that keeps these new flexible models moving, that helps them to operate in an agile way and to work together in order to achieve shared goals.

It is more true than ever before: that without great communication, genuine teamwork is impossible.

Robert Weider 

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