The Team Building Directory

Advice and information about all things team buiding

Bookmark and Share
Teams in 21st Century: how do we define their role?

Meredith Belbin takes a look at the nature of teamwork today and offers an optimistic outlook. The word ‘team’ appears to have been borrowed in the first instance from sport and signified ‘being on the same side and pulling together’. But it seems the terms of reference of a team are shifting and demand further thought. At one time a ‘team’ was virtually synonymous with an Autonomous Work Group. However, synergy within the team, essential for an AWG, was often achieved at the expense of lack of synergy with other parts of the organisation. Visions were restricted because members of the team always kept the same company, being pinned into their positions by restrictive job descriptions.

As these formal structures are increasingly falling into disrepute, new dynamic concepts are beginning to take their place. First, it is being recognised as dysfunctional that membership of any given team should remain static. Second, perspectives within the team need to be widened. Facilitating career moves within the organisation offers one means of achieving this aim while also offering the advantage of growing a ‘bigger person’. Another way is to arrange periodic swaps of members between existing teams in order to deepen understanding of the broader field.

Just as there are ‘horses for courses’, so also there are ‘teams for pitches’. If a team is to be pitched into a particular area of challenge, one needs to ensure that the team consists of the right players. In football, the fans judge the quality of the players because they view the play throughout the game. But who can judge the quality of the players participating in industrial teams? There are no independent witnesses as in football.

Managers in industry or the public service are often supposed to be assessing underlings. Common experience suggests that managers are seldom positioned to do so and are often embarrassed in having to go through the motions. So where does that leave the manager? Often in the unenviable position of being out of touch, one fears.

As to the future, it seems that teams will need to spend more time in mutual assessment and be readier to accept collective responsibility for what they achieve. In being collectively accountable to a manager, teams will need to face up to the downside of greater empowerment. The manager will be fully entitled under this new scenario to dismiss a failing team and to assemble a new one.

In the past, the presumption was that managers knew everything that was going on. Few managers these days would dare to make such a bold claim. New technology is changing culture. Wistful managers now feel they are being bypassed because websites and e-mails are generating a vast amount of information through lateral communication. As a consequence, the bedrock of traditional hierarchy is being relentlessly undermined in the process. So thoughtful managers will inevitably feel the need to change the way they approach their jobs. They will have to think more about the nature of accountability and about how responsibilities can best be transferred to well-constructed teams.

The need for a better balance in decision taking is gaining wider recognition, which is why understanding the attributes of the team in Management, and in associated projects, looks like becoming one of the more promising and defining features of the 21st century. The above is an adaptation of the full article, which appeared in the December 2002 edition of Training Journal – a specially themed issue concentrating on the subject of teamwork. The article examines what the words ‘team’ and ‘teamwork’ mean in today’s workplace. The author assesses how teams can progress to be of maximum use. He also takes a look at the future of teams and comes to an optimistic conclusion.

Meredith Belbin can be contacted c/o of Training Journal on (tel) +44 (0) 1353 654877, (fax) +44 (0) 1353 663644 or at
Document number: 0112Belbin
Training Journal Abstract
Issue: December 2002
Author: Meredith Belbin