• Managing people

When Teams Are Not The Answer

Building communities of practice

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Leadership and Organizational consultant David Kesby explains why teams are often the wrong solution for working groups and when communities of practice are the answer.

A huge amount of money is spent on developing teams within organisations. Managers in organisations make great efforts to develop their teams in order to make them perform better. The assumption is that a group of people working together ought to be a team. Because of this assumption performance improvement is typically sought through changing group structures and performance measures to make such groups seem more like a team. And the business of team building makes lots of money from supporting such activity and taking groups through “team” initiatives. All too frequently such development activity fails to deliver the promise.

But many groups are not teams, never will be teams, and trying to make them teams is a waste of time, effort and money. However, many groups can improve their performance by simply recognising themselves as a Community of Practice rather than a team. A Community of Practice is developed fundamentally differently from a team, although having been developed, an excellently performing community of practice will look and feel similar to an excellently performing team.

Teams are attractive to managers as they offer performance synergies for organisations as well as huge satisfaction for the people involved. Managers rarely ask if the people that they manage actually constitute a team? If they do, then they are likely to meet the highly regarded and widely used definition of teams:

“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.” (Katzenbach and Smith (1993) p.45.)

But what if they aren’t a team and they are just a working group? What happens if the working group does not have the requirements to be a team? For instance, what if everyone has the same rather than complementary skills? What if there is simply no goal that is common to all? What if we considered the working group was not a team and could never be a team?

Communities of practice (CoP) are groups of people who identify themselves as having a shared interest, craft, and/or profession. They have been studied for over 20 years, but until now only recognised as informal groups. CoP’s are important to organisations because practitioners gain individual benefit from learning together and organisations gain performance synergies from the output of CoPs (McDermott, 2000). In this respect they offer similar benefits as teams, even though they are fundamentally different.


Community of Practice

Complementary skills – people with different skills who need to work together to achieve a common goal

Similar skills – people who use similar skills to do similar work, but towards different individual goals

Common purpose – Working together to achieve the same ends

Common identity – everyone recognising that they have a common interest, craft or profession

Common goal - everyone working to the same goal/outcome

Comparable goals – Individuals have similar but separate goals. These are often combined together to form an aggregate goal for which the manager is responsible; but it is not common.

Common approach – working together in the same way

Common approach – working individually in the same way

Mutual accountability – an interdependency that requires members to support each other to achieve together

Individual accountability. One member’s performance does not impact the performance of another. Only the manager, who is responsible for the aggregated goal, is directly affected if a team member underperforms.

Many managers will have direct reports who constitute a team. But some managers will have direct reports who would be better recognised as a community of practice – for instance a group of account managers, project managers or product managers. Forcing a community of practice to become a team is likely to impair rather than improve performance as doing so runs against the natural processes involved (similarly forcing a team to be a community of practice). Better to recognise them for what they are. But since communities of practice are different from teams, the way they are managed needs to be different as well. Here are some practical things that need to be done differently.

  • Meet Regularly – Not to work together but to learn together. The benefits of coming together are to learn from each other, agree standards of working, stimulate innovation and build a common identity – not to get the task done.
  • Share challenges and learning across the community. Where people have learned to overcome particular practical challenges, share this amongst the community in a way that encourages others to do the same. As a leader, it is vital that you role model challenging others and learning from others.
  • Reward community contribution – not team targets. Reward the sharing of learning, experience, or new innovations that leads to others improving their performance. This recognises the origins of the performance improvement across the CoP and encourages even more openness.
  • Discourage competition – encourage collaboration. It’s too easy to create competition between people who do the same work. But trust and openness is the key to sharing and learning from each other and this generates performance improvement across the whole CoP. Competitiveness closes communication and so the opportunity to share the benefits is limited.
  • Encourage copying from “newcomers” and the challenge of “elders”. In CoPs some are more experienced than others – but everyone needs to develop through support and challenge. “Elders” make excellent role models for “newcomers”. But encourage “newcomers” to challenge the “elders” to continuously improve performance levels across the whole CoP. Everyone needs to own the “practice manual”, not just the “elders”.
  • Write and re-write the “practice manual”. As the community shares experiences amongst itself, so the current “best” practice can be re-learned or innovations developed to make it better.
  • Build the community identity. Whilst teams have a common purpose CoPs have a common identity. Building the identity helps with cohesion and performance standards on the inside and strong reputation on the outside.
  • Acknowledge that it is not a team. The manager’s goal is not everyone’s goal. Yet learning together enables everyone to achieve their own goals better – even the manager. You can only do this if you acknowledge that you aren’t in a team, but in a CoP.

Having managed a CoP differently from a team, the irony is that the outcome is remarkably similar – high performance and great satisfaction. This is the wisdom of working groups.

Before spending time and money assuming that better team working is the solution, ensure that it is not a CoP that you are actually managing by using the simple questionnaire below.

Diagnosing your own working group

Use the following questionnaire to identify whether you are in a team or a CoP. When considering each statement, think only of the people who come under the same manager. Do not include “dotted line” relationships, including matrix-type relationships.


Disagree Agree

I don’t rely on specialist skills from others in my team in order to get my work done

1 2 3 4

I do the same or a similar role to most other people in my team

1 2 3 4

If someone else in my team fails in their work, it doesn’t affect my own performance, but our team reputation is damaged.

1 2 3 4

We don’t need to work together for me to get my job done

1 2 3 4

My peers are not dependent on me doing my job well, but my boss is.

1 2 3 4

5-9 You are likely to be in a Team.
10-15 It is uncertain what your team is. You may be in a team that doesn’t work well together. Or you may be a Community of Practice that’s trying to be a team.
16-20 You are likely to be in a Community of Practice

David is a Consultant with Kesby and Co. He has developed leaders, teams and organizations for over 15 years working with clients such as Network Rail and Hiscox Insurance. He has led teams in corporations and the military. Kesby and Co is a community of consultant practitioners who work in partnership with client organizations to provide pragmatic leadership and organizational development.

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