When a Group is not a Team

In contracting for applied action learning coaching, we often assume that when we employ the term, team, we all understand it’s meaning the same way. However, I had an experience that illuminated at least one alternative conceptualization that, had I understood it at the time, would have led me and my colleagues to carefully define what we mean by “team.” When understood and agreed by our client system representative, this can become the basis for a clear, non-ambiguous agreement using common terms.

Several years ago, a representative of a non-profit organization with which I was affiliated, entered into a contract with a representative of a government agency to conduct a series of applied action learning sessions. There were to be several action learning teams, each with a different purpose. I was assigned to coach a cross-sectional team of eight persons. The goal was to create a uniform policy for the use of personal and government issued electronic devices – e.g., laptops and smart cell phones. The policy was to be offered to all government agencies as a means of eliminating conflicting local policies.

At the first meeting, I opened the meeting in our traditional manner, going over the two ground rules, having team members identify one leadership behavior they wanted to develop, etc. They agreed on the task and its intended purpose. Then, the team asked for one person to volunteer to be the coordinator-integrator. One person agreed with no dissention. At the time I had no idea what this role entailed. They identified several government agencies from which they wanted to obtain information about their existing policies. They divided these agencies among themselves and made commitments to seek out and interview key persons in each agency (i.e., people who ostensibly knew their agency’s policy and their advantages and disadvantages. I intervened several times during the first 20 minutes to focus attention on the quality of members’ questions and to reiterate the first ground rule. Members said these interventions had no value and were eating into their available time. I also attempted to intervene about 15 minutes into the session to raise our traditional mid-session questions. The group rejected this effort as well. Clearly, we were operating from vastly different mental models of effective teamwork.

As they got ready to conclude, 20 minutes short of our scheduled ending time, I felt rushed to close the session before they left or signed off. Since each member knew what actions they were responsible for, there was no need to inquire about that. I did introduce our other traditional closing questions: what the team did well, what it could do better, what team members learned about themselves, the team, and their organization, whether the process helped, and what did team members observe about the individual members’ efforts to develop their leadership competencies. They seemed reluctant, but they followed along.

Two weeks later, at the team’s second meeting, only three people showed up in person, two were on the speaker phone, three were “busy.” The four team members reported what they had discovered in their interviews. They addressed only the coordinator-integrator; not each other. The coordinator-integrator collected their information. They rejected invitations to discuss the similarities or differences among agencies interviewed thus far; the implications of this information; or what individuals learned from the actions they took between action learning sessions. They expressed the strong belief that my coaching interventions were disruptive and a waste of their time.

The third session consisted of the coordinator-integrator and me, in person, with two team members on the speaker phone. The experience was similar to the second session.

I called the agency’s project champion to express my concerns. It was not far into this conversation that he said that I was not to communicate directly with him – now or in the future. I was to follow the chain of command. So, I called the colleague that was serving as our project leader. I expressed my frustration – under these conditions, I could not function as an action learning coach should – and said this was a waste of my time and the agency’s money. I said I had no ethical choice but to fire my clients. This was accepted, the project leader took over the team with which I had been working. I have not received any feedback about what happened after that, in spite of my requests. I was told that the client champion made up an excuse for my absence – something about being needed on another project.

Coacting groups. I thought that this was an odd, unique experience – until I read Richard Hackman’s book, Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems (2011, San Francisco: Berrett-Khoeler). He described four types of teams, differentiated by (a) whether or not the group has a whole was responsible for the work and (b) whether or not members need to interact synchronously in real time. This resulted in three types of teams and one group (a non-team). The teams were: surgical teams, face-to-face teams, and distributed teams. The non-team was a “coacting group.” This non-team was characterized by individual members were responsible for outcomes, operate independently and in parallel on subparts of the task. One person constructed the collective product by aggregating and organizing the team members’ individual contributions. There was little work-related interactions among members.

Coacting groups cannot generate synergistic collective products because they do not have a common task. … The presence of coactors can impair performance when the work requires responses that are not already well practiced … coacting groups perform less well than well-designed teams whose members share responsibility and accountability for the group product. In general, coacting groups are indicated when there is minimal need for coordinated, interdependent work by group members who can, in the main, work independently (Hackman, 2011, p. 31-32, italics added).”

In conclusion:

  • It may be that the coacting group model was appropriate for the task that was set before the group. If so, would this be an appropriate application of action learning?
  • What is your understanding of a team?
  • What is your client system’s (or its representative’s) understanding of a team? How could you know?
  • What would you do if your understanding and that of your client system are significantly different?

Arthur Freedman, MBA, PhD
Master Action Learning Coach


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