by Gwyn Williams and Bruce Milroy

What is a team?

When an identifiable group of people are working together toward a common goal and are inter-dependent upon each other to realise that goal (as well as being rewarded for achieving it), they may be referred to as a team. If any of these factors are missing, they may simply be a group of individuals that loosely come together with their own agendas and no common purpose.

A team is any number of individuals from three to 12. In terms of team size, six to 12 members is the ideal. Fewer than six may not provide a sufficient variety of ideas and more than 12 tend to split into subgroups that are likely to undermine the concept of team working.

In the Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith use the following definition for a team.


Team: a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Why do people work together? The desire to be part of a group seems to be instinctive, but what are the fundamental drivers of this instinct?

Our distant ancestors certainly faced some interesting challenges. They found themselves at a disadvantage, after long-term climate change, having to come down from the trees and live on the much more open plains. All the other animals were specialists in some way – they had fearsome teeth or claws, tough hides or the ability to run fast. What our primate ancestors could do, however, was come together as a tribe, to live and work as a team. The question that then arose was – how?

Our ancestors had to find ways of dealing with the scale of, for example, a pride of lions – both in terms of their greater physical strength and ‘firepower’ and their numbers. They also had to deal with environmental complexity, resulting from the range of potential threats and the need to find different types of foodstuffs.

One response would be for everyone to simply use their own initiative – everyone do their own thing. Another would be for everyone to try and do exactly the same thing – stick together at all times. Both of these options had their limitations.

The key challenge was find a way to deal with scale and complexity.

Of course, the answer was to coordinate activities. And so the primates gathered together in tribes and tribal behaviour consequently emerged. By gathering in this way, a group could operate effectively at both higher scales and greater complexity. This was achieved by having a purpose and structure in place to align the activities of the individuals. Initially, a tribal chief and a council of elders could arbitrate or guide the tribe, without any need for a strong, centrally-imposed authority. At a certain point of group evolution – when tribes formed into clans, for example – this no longer worked, and so hierarchies emerged.

The key benefit tribes enjoyed was the ability to provide food, shelter, warmth and safety for all the tribal (team) members and to achieve this to a greater extent than an isolated or lone primate could. This is also borne out in the catastrophic effects on an individual primate who broke the norms and values (tribal laws) and was subsequently cast out of the tribe to survive on their own. If they were unable to reinstate themselves in the tribe or to discover another tribe willing to accept them, the consequences were dire.

To a much lesser extent, we see the same thing in present-day teams. And we can accept that banding together in teams is very much part of our ancient history and therefore there is vast evidence of the benefit of working in teams.

Team, therefore, is a word and concept known to almost every man, woman and child in any culture one might come into contact with. Teamwork touches virtually every aspect of our lives and we become conscious of it from a very early age. The generic title ‘team’ or ‘teamwork’ has many applications and crosses many boundaries, starting within the family and ranging across the sporting arena, the military, through to working groups in commercial sectors and on to global teams operating in virtual time and space.

Top tip

Focus on a small number of key factors that will help to improve the performance of your team.

Generally speaking, it is accepted that teams outperform individuals.

Given this belief – that teams outperform individuals – it is hardly surprising that the available literature on teams is vast. What is surprising is that the creation of a truly high-performing team can be difficult to achieve in practice.


Ask the team to discuss a key factor, such as

  • What is our common team goal?
  • Within this team, what is our code of conduct with each other?
  • What are our strengths?