Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Group, Team or Ensemble?

I attended the Premier CIO Forum in the Twin Cities last week. Among the many speakers during the day was Kimi Hirotsu Ziemski, of KSP Partnership She and her firm seem to be focused on helping organizations work more effectively. Kimi shared an intriguing take on teams (among other topics, including workplace culture and more - but today I'm just going to ruminate on her little aside about teams vs. ensembles).

To set the context, let's consider four ways that we humans organize ourselves and perform actions:
  1. Individual
  2. Group
  3. Team
  4. Ensemble 


Perhaps this term is self-explanatory? You, me, anybody capable of independent thought or action - we are individuals. I realize that no one (except maybe for a few hermits) actually lives a life that is entirely "individual", but I would argue that even the most group-oriented person still exists as an entity, an individual, with unique experiences, emotions, thoughts and actions. In the workplace, the individual manifests in, well, gettin' assignments done! Head down, focused, putting in the effort needed to succeed. Haven't we all experienced something like this: I'm at my desk, up against deadline, hammering away on a document or other content, intently focused ... at some point I finally take a breath and look up, only to realize that everyone in the office has left for the day and I'm here all alone!


A group is more than one individual, together making up some kind of identifiable unit. In the workplace, that might be a department, division, or even the entire enterprise. Groups are simply people who have been put together - and the fact is that they may or may not really work well together at all. If I understand the distinction, people may belong to a group but still generally work independently of one another (e.g, you do your stuff, I'll do mine). Sometimes a group is a long-term arrangement (in your workplace, your activities may vary, but you generally don't switch departments very often - if at all); other times a group may be formed for a limited time or focused campaign, especially when individual tasks - while important - may not have much impact on each other. If you dig around the available information about groups, you'll find that most researchers agree that a group is generally in need of supervision, or else it can veer off-course quickly. Groups are also most-effective when individual goals are clear to each person.




Let's move on to teams. Again, a team is made up of more than one individual, but the distinctions are: everyone on the team has shared goals and works together to achieve them - the old "whole is greater than the sum of the parts" paradigm. Historically, teams were formed to focus on a short-term deliverable, although in today's workplace I am increasingly seeing "team" thought of as a longer-term commitment to strong collaboration, particularly when the work is cross-functional - bringing talents together from across an organization's departments. Ideally each person on a team recognizes the expertise and talents of the others. A strong team is reactive and capable. It is assembles the talent needed to gets things done efficiently. A team probably need less supervision than a group, especially if the team is clearly high-performing.

For most us, the idea of a well-formed and high-functioning team is the pinnacle of workplace dynamics. Hooray!

Interestingly, Kimi took a different tone. She mentioned teams, but saved her reverence for ensembles.


As I understood Kimi, she was referencing an Ensemble as a sort of elevated form of Team. says that Ensemble is a noun, with several related meanings. I'll pick and choose a couple to support the concept here:
1. All the parts of a thing taken together, so that each part is considered only in relation to the whole.
2. In music - the united performance of an entire group of singers, musicians, etc.

Kimi talked about an ensemble as a unit that seemed to have a natural and almost effortless collaboration. She noted that people in an ensemble have a full and deep commitment to one another and are mutually supportive - they know that they need each other, they anticipate needs (proactive), and they achieve top performance. She even implied that an ensemble has an intuitive dynamic, where the people seem to sense where they are going next even if it's a new direction. That made me think about music and Jazz Ensembles - sometimes the ensemble is just jamming away, riffing on themes but essentially making it up as they go along - and yet to the audience it all seems flawless. I think that's the kind of ensemble performance she was thinking about in a workplace.

As I was listening to her, I was associating her ideas of the ensemble to two different concepts that I've thought a lot about over the years: self-organizing teams, and Tuckman's ideas on how teams form and perform.

Self-organizing Teams

  • A group of motivated people working together toward a goal (sounds familiar).
  • Have the ability and authority to make decisions (wait, that's different).
  • Manage their own work as a group.
  • Don't wait for a leader to assign work.
  • Have a stronger sense of ownership and commitment.
  • Communicate with each other, and make commitments to the team.
The modern-day workforce is very different than preceding generations. We tend to be knowledge workers, not drones doing repetitive tasks. And knowledge workers expect—fairly, in my opinion—to have a say in what they are focused on (initiatives) and how they do their work (methods). That attitude requires flatter, non-siloed structures and cross-functional collaboration the likes of which organizations have never really seen before. Effective leadership in this environment is fundamentally different—it is no longer about being “in charge” and much more about empowerment and transparency - movement toward lean and agile practices—an evolution that will continue to be a challenge for the next few years.

Bruce Tuckman on Team Formation

All the way back in the 1960s, Bruce Tuckman was conceptualizing stages of team building. I'd wager at some point along the way you've encountered the famous forming-storming-norming-performing paradigm


I think it's interesting to compare this to Kimi's hierarchy. Is it possible that - in her estimation - a Team is essentially in the Norming phase, while an Ensemble has reached the Performing stage?  There does seem to be overlap, particularly in the language that each is using to describe their framework. I think the two points of view are actually mutually reinforcing.

So where does this get us? I'm not entirely sure, because honestly this post is more of a rumination than some kind of a lesson. I think we can observe that leaders and researchers have been thinking and writing about people working in groups for a long time, and (at least in my view) have come to rather similar conclusions. It takes more than just putting people together to make a high-functioning team. However, when you select the right individuals, put them in a group, establish clear goals that everyone buys into, give that team the autonomy and responsibility to organize and complete their work, then we observe the best performance.

I hope to help form many ensembles before I ride off into the sunset!

Further Reading
Differences Between Groups and Teams
Tuckman's Stages of Group Development
Self-organizing Teams

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