All teams are self-organized

There is a lot of blah blah when it comes to team building. From hierarchical hard-liners to wishy-washy guru’s, a lot has been said about how to make people collaborate.

There is a new project and that requires a new team. So we’ve picked a few people and put them near each other. How can we make these strangers work as one team?

We’ll set up governance. Sprint plannings and daily standups.

We’ll have kick-off meetings and team building events to kickstart the camaraderie.

If you revisit this group a few months later, it’s very likely you won’t have a team. You’ll see one or more in-crowds and a bunch of individuals. In-crowds are small groups that have bonded. Those three developers that go for coffee every day. The managers that bond over the monthly PM lunch.

The individuals usually get along just fine with everyone. They just don’t seem to hang with the crowd that often. They might prefer to socialize with people who aren’t on the team. On rare occasions, you’ll have individuals who feel ostracised.

Cliques and separations like this are a team builder’s nightmare, but they are a natural part of how human relationships work. Just like your high-school class wasn’t one tight-knit group of friends, colleagues will not form a team just because we put them together.

Top-down team design is an exercise in futility. It’s not how humans socialize. Most organizations prefer not to meddle and end up with a bunch of cliques.

In the short run, it’s very productive to treat these cliques as a team. They have a network and a communication style that works. Breaking that up to fit a corporate mould is counter-productive.

But you don’t want only in-crowds in your company. Introducing new hires will get difficult and it’s far from inclusive.

You don’t want a cult where everyone has to like each other equally and you don’t want people who aren’t allowed to sit at the Cool Kids Table.

As usual, there isn’t a right answer. It depends.

Anyone who tells you the recipe for building a team is selling you something.

Human social networking is ridiculously complicated.