The Organizer #32 | Leadership

How do I lead a group of people? Create teams that suit your style and mission, and nurture them carefully.

Different kinds of teams

A team is a group of people who intentionally depend on each other in order to achieve an objective.

Teams are not formed by accident. They are not inevitable, and they aren’t even very functional without some form of leadership.

There are lots of different ways to design a team. The difference is usually a mix of two things:

  1. How dependent people are on each other
  2. Where & when dependence arises.

Basically, it’s the difference between baseball, relays, and hockey.

Three types of teams

Parallel (Baseball)

Parallel dependency is when each person performs their own role, somewhat independently. They work in parallel to the other members of the team, and the collective impact of their work generates results.

Think of an orchestra, where each musician plays their own part on their own instrument. Or think of a baseball team, where each player has their own position and their own spot in the lineup. Social work agencies, health clinics, and schools often work on this model, which each specialist or teacher serving their own clients or students. 

With this model, you are responsible for your own performance, and you need others playing their parts in order to achieve the desired result.

Linear (Relay)

Linear dependency is when one person plays their part, then hands responsibility to the next person or group of people. Think of runners in a relay race; they run their leg and then hand the baton to the next person. Or think of book publishing, where a writer creates a manuscript, then a copy-editor proofreads it, then a printer prints the book, and then a store sells it.

You cannot play your part until the people before you finish theirs; and you depend on the people after you to finish the job.

Circular (Hockey)

Circular dependency is when each person plays a specific part, but the back-and-forth happens continuously. Hockey is like this, where the puck is passed from player-to-player all game long. Similarly, actors in a play trade lines back and forth from the time the curtain rises to the time it falls. Movies are even more complicated, with hundreds of crew and cast members each playing their well-defined role. Same with operating rooms in hospitals.

On these teams, you have to know what part you are playing, what part others play, and where you connect. These teams are the most complex and require the strong communication; yet they are often the ones we rely on to perform some of humanity’s most important work.

What kind of team do you have? What kind do you want?

Which kind of team is right for you and your mission?

Understanding how and when people on your team connect with each other is a powerful way to gain insight into the team’s communications, training, and leadership needs.

It can also be daunting. If you are thinking, “This job is hard enough as it is, I can’t make everything perfect for everyone else all of the time.” Yes. Totally. Nonprofit leadership jobs are really hard, already.

There are days when it is almost impossible to imagine doing anything new or different and when you can’t meet your own needs, let alone an entire group’s. At the same time, your team is your way out. It’s the path off the hamster wheel.

Teams empower people and build trust. They promote accountability and respect. They reflect and a reinforce strategy.

Teams require nurturing and attention, but they pay off in the end. Also (and maybe most importantly) …teams make hard work more fun.

How to design effective teams

Special thanks to Managing Organizational Behaviour in Canada by Sniderman, Bulman, Nelson, and Quick for guidance on types of team dependencies.

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