Software Teams versus Groups

What’s distinguishes a team from a group?

In the cultural sphere of my youth, basketball seemed the quintessential team game. I was a playground hoops rat who grew up tolerating ego-centric ball hogs. I’d wonder, why don’t these rubes appreciate the team game?

I dreamed of a team game, modeling and emulating the unselfish play of the 1969-70 NBA champion N.Y. Knicks.

In retrospect, my hoop dreams chums and I were a motley collection of pubescent mouth-breathers missing that magic chunk of gray matter that enables a flock of humans to behave like the symphony of a single organism (e.g., Self-Organization: Flocks, Schools & Colonies).

Compare the shooting stats of the 1969 Knicks with the 2008 NBA runner-up Lakers — a striking difference in the distribution of shots per game for the top 6 players of both clubs is evident.

1969 Knicks Shots per Game
Willis Reed 17
Walt Frazier 15
Dave Debusschere 14
Bill Bradley 13
Dick Barnett 13
Cazzie Russell 10
Mean 13.2 and Std. Deviation 2.4

2008 Lakers Shots per Game
Kobe Bryant 21
Pau Gasol 13
Andrew Bynum 10
Lamar Odom 9
Derek Fisher 8
Trevor Ariza 7
Mean 9.9 and Std. Deviation 5.2

For the Lakers, Kobe Bryant took 3 times the shots per game than 6th man, Trevor Ariza. For the Knicks, Willis Reed, took 1.7 time the shots per game than 6th man, Cazzie Russell. Which club feels like a team? Which feels like a group?  My apologies for leading the witness.

The ’69 Knicks and the ’08 Lakers, by all accounts, were wildly successful in their respective eras. Most people would probably choose to play on a team similar to the Knicks, where everyone was assured roughly the same number of shots. Is selflessness an indicator of team success?


I started this post thinking unselfishness was a defining characteristic of successful teams. I planned to compare a team player’s team, like the 1969 Knicks, with a ball hog team, like Kobe Bryant and the 2008 Lakers, but a funny thing happened:

The premise did not ring true.

Working Thesis

Most of us would rather play on an unselfish team, but unselfishness, while an attribute of a attractive team, is not an attribute that defines a successful team.

Teamwork is less concerned with democratic, unselfish distribution of tasks and skills, then with recognizing how best to combine the strengths and weaknesses of the players.

I suspect that successful teams determine – by a sometimes brutal mechanism akin to natural selection – which player should fill which role based on complementary strengths and weaknesses. These roles are not appointed, they emerge. Roles emerge as strengths and weaknesses are evaluated through trial and error. Appointed roles rarely work, but who doesn’t know the go-to-guy 3 weeks into a project?

Avoid the trappings of appointing and anointing. Try letting roles emerge.

The Greek syn-ergos is the root of the English synergy meaning working together. Synergy describes conditions where entities cooperate advantageously for a final outcome. Synergy is an over-used word that feeds the old saw

The sum of a team’s parts is more important than any individual

Groups begin the path of team transformation when each group member acknowledges and pursues a shared goal. When group members are able to subjugate personal ego in the pursuit of the most efficient path to a shared goal, they cross into the realm of team.

Teams display emergent behavior which is a collective behavior that is largely unpredicted by the behavior of individuals taken separately. Sometimes simple entities like individual players, form more complex behaviors as a collective. NBA teams assemble players based on roles like shooter, rebounder, defender, etc. They build around core players and skills that fit a style or vision with complementary players and skills.

Teams where players emerge into roles are not necessarily exclusive from the much ballyhooed cross-functional teams. On the best NBA teams, when the shooter gets hurt, other team members fill the void by taking more shots. Because you emerge as the best person to branch of your source code, doesn’t mean you are – or should be – the team’s exclusive branching dude.

I have heard the phrase self-directed teams used to describe teams that are given autonomy and take responsibility. Teams are self-directed by definition, so self-directed team is as redundant as Free Gift or Frozen Ice. Perhaps “self-direction” is merely another characteristic that distinguishes a team from a group.

Following is a working enumeration of some of the characteristics that might distinguish a team from a group:

  • Teams work toward shared goals
  • Teams have emergent roles based on the most efficient path to shared goals
  • Teams emerge as a single organism when advantageous
  • Teams have emergent behavior unpredicted by individuals
  • Team members subjugate individual ego for the sake of team efficiency
  • Teams are self-directed

5 thoughts on “Software Teams versus Groups

  1. Great, article. I'm taking a teambuilding class this term so it resinates very loudly in the present.

    It amazes me how frequently a group forms and someone anounces “OK, team lets do ….”, pointing toward an objective. I have to ask my self is this the group/leader behavior or a team behavior.

    Sports is a wonderful field for analogies…

    I often contrast the baseball “team” with other teams. In baseball the majority of interactions involve only 3 players (pitcher, batter, catcher) and if the play developes, it typically developes to require only a small subset of player to be involved in the play. On whole only 44% of the players are on the bench while playing the game (8 of 18). Contrasting this game of teams to that of basketball is interesting. Regardless of the unselfishness of the basketball team, the dynamics are quite different.

    I think this points out another definiton or attribute of a true team vs a group working toward the shared goal. On a true team, everyone must be involved in play, there must be a coordination of players, and roles exchange (I'll set a screen and block, you pass, I'll catch, etc.).

    Compare the act of serving in vollyball to that of pitching in baseball. In vollyball the role of server rotates to various players, in baseball the role is constantly assigned to one player.

    Thanks for your thoughts, got mine mind thinking teams again.


  2. :^{)},

    If team members (not UCF officials) chose the shoe, and if team members benefited from the contract, then it would be an issue for Marcus to refuse to wear the shoe. As it stands, I tend to side with Marcus Jordan, but I wonder what his teammates think…I guess that's the salient question.


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