Two recent events have reminded me about work I did almost twenty years ago about the differences between teams and groups (and even bigger ‘teams’ like communities and networks).

I was coaching a young lady recently promoted to manager in one of my new clients in Russia, who wanted help in her new leadership role, with her small direct team of five people in the office and her remote functional ‘team’ of 15 people in 15 different locations. And at more or less the same time I finally read Kevan Hall’s latest book on ‘Making the matrix work’ that he had kindly given me three years ago. Sorry!

In 1997 we set up a new global Technology organization in Shell Chemicals. The number of direct reports to the CEO totalled around 20 and many of us had people in at least three different countries including the US and the Netherlands. We called ourselves the Leadership Team, held monthly face-to-face meetings, and had lots of things to organise as the structure and ways of working really were new and we were actually the first part of Shell to have a global organization (rather than national or regional).

After a few months of hectic travelling and work, many of the ‘Team’ were under great pressure, and we were still trying to find out how best to work together and with our own global organisations and ‘teams’. And of course we were all concerned about ‘teambuilding’ that we thought all good leaders did. Late one night at one of our face-to-face meetings I held a session about teams and groups.

I was helped by a book by Jon Katzenbach on ‘Teams at the top’ that had been published the same year ‘97. It was the first time that I realized that you didn’t actually need to be a ‘team’ all the time. Especially when the ‘team’ was spread across different locations and countries. And that there was a difference between teams and groups.

These are some of the takeaways I shared that evening, from my original notes.

  1. The best senior leadership groups are rarely a true team at the top – although they can & do function as real teams when major, unexpected events prompt that behaviour
  2. Most of them can optimise their performance as a group by consciously working to obtain a better balance between their team & non-team efforts – rather than by trying to become an ongoing single team
  3. The secret to a better balance lies in learning to integrate the discipline required for team performance with the discipline of single-leader behaviour – not in replacing one with the other

Three tests of a true performance team

  1. Mutual accountability for group results
  2. Collective or joint work products of clear performance value
  3. A sharing and/or shifting of leadership role among the members

“It can often be frustrating, pointless and even counterproductive to try and force a group of top executives to become a team;

however there are some identifiable occasions and compelling reasons when a top team effort is essential in order to capture performance potential (eg unexpected or crisis events occasionally produce real team efforts at the top);

the wisdom is to differentiate between team and non-team opportunities and then shift into whichever mode is best for the task at hand”

And most importantly, ‘it helps to know when (and when not) to be concerned (or when and when not to feel guilty) about whether your senior leadership group is working as a real team or not’.

Shortly afterwards I also learned about Kevan’s (and Tony’s) early work with Global Integration and about remote or dispersed ‘teams’. And have applied, and shared, the information and tools in all of my roles since.

Of course that’s not to say I didn’t make mistakes. I still remember a virtual Townhall that I tried to hold with my own organization, more than 50 people and four different countries and 4 different time zones. All sitting there bored for two hours. I was much better off, and had more positive feedback, sending out an email to everyone!

And even when things went well, and we understood the difference between teams and groups, it wasn’t always appreciated. With a new CEO and the twenty-odd ‘leadership team’ I mentioned above, we instituted via a slight organizational change, a smaller core leadership team of four of us to improve efficiency, separating group and team tasks. Which worked from an organizational perspective but wasn’t welcomed by our colleagues who felt disenfranchised. We were called the ‘Gang of Four’. Google Gang of Four and China!

I shared some of my learnings (and some of Kevan’s wise words) with my new coachee. Here is a very brief resume, but you know where to look for more detail!


a number of people (ideally 4-6, enough for diversity and not enough to make team dynamics difficult) with complementary skills, collaborating together closely on a collective goal; the team result should be more than the sum of the individual parts with people depending on the input of others to get their work done; the work is often synchronous, everyone being involved at the same time, which means that team meetings (either face-to-face or remotely) are frequent, participative and relevant to all; the main difficulty of a team is the time needed (often up-front) to get to know each other and to create shared ways of working (hence the ‘teambuilding’ element).


a number of individuals (perhaps 10-15) with similar or complementary roles & skills, who do not require close collaboration and whose roles do not overlap; the work of the group is normally the sum of the output of the individuals, who can complete their daily tasks without input from others in the group; but this individual effort requires co-ordination by the group leader; this can usually be on a one-to-one basis, rather than in group meetings (requiring juggling of time schedules & differences from global groups); there are a few reasons to get people together occasionally including receiving information at the same time, skills training (they may have common training needs), implementation of new processes, tools or systems, sharing best practice and so that members know each other enough to pick up the phone and call each other; difficulties of groups to be aware of include duplication of effort if learning between members isn’t facilitated, individuals feeling disconnected, we will probably all be in more than one team in large companies so balancing time and expectations, and if the group leader insists on having regular meetings anyway!

For the sake of completeness, even though the topic of the blog is teams and groups:


often called communities of practice, a group of people that share common interests or identity that distinguish them within an organisation (such as an HR community within a company); the boundaries are generally clear as to who is a member and who isn’t; the community often concentrates on developing the capability of its members and sharing learning and best practice; received wisdom is that the best size is up to 50 but I have certainly seen 150-200 work well.


a group you might want to stay connected and maintain a relationship with, because indeed you have some connection, communication with or see potential for collaboration. Best practice says the optimum size is up to 150, but if you are like me you might have more than 1000 in your LinkedIn network!

1 Comment

  1. Karine Quillien

    Rob Wengrzyn ‘s definition says it all. In the case of your picture, the girls seem to try to stay dry while having a good time: a flock? The words ‘group’ and ‘team’ are, for the most part, interchangeable But there are distinct differences between groups and teams. For example, we have a football team, not a football group – or we have a special interest group, not a special interest team. While the differences are subtle, they are indeed different, and we need to understand what those differences are. The main difference is that a team’s strength or focus depends on the commonality of their purpose and how the individuals are connected to one another. On the other hand, a group can come from having a large number of people or a cohesive willingness to carry out a focused action – political reform, for example. While these differences might be subtle, we have to understand that a group is a number of individuals forming a unit for a reason or cause, and a team is a collection of accomplished people coming together for a common goal that needs completion. The subtleness of these differences are more pronounced when we take these words a step further and look at a work group and work team.


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