Create Teams By Forming Crews

Author

Jurgen Appelo, Contributor

July 15, 2015

Are you creating teams, but do you find the word “team” overused and uninspiring? Try forming “crews” instead.

At nine people, we had to draw the line. Teams should not have more than nine members. Plenty of research confirms that people are more productive when they work on small teams. Twenty workers is not a team. That’s just a group. Most often, a range of three to seven people is suggested as the optimal team size, with the number five as the sweet spot. In our case, with nine team members, we were already stretching it a bit.

So, what to do when you plan to hire colleagues 10 and 11? How do you make everyone’s productivity scalable?

You split up. Obviously.

Teams or Groups
The first challenge for us was the terminology. How would we refer to a subset of workers? The word group is clearly not a good choice. It is too generic. Three people can be a group; three million people can be a group. The word doesn’t convey cohesion, a sense of identity, and a feeling of we’re-in-it-together. I am member of many groups, including the groups of keynote speakers, coffee lovers, fantasy readers, and people-living-in-Brussels. But this doesn’t mean I care to hang out with fellow members of those groups.

The word team does convey a feeling of togetherness. After all, the word is defined as a group of people working together. (The word is also used for sports teams and teams of animals, which is somewhat less relevant for us.) However, in my company, we had already been using the word team for the entire group of nine, and also for smaller activities where just two or three of us teamed up temporarily to perform specific activities. I foresaw a lot of confusion about the words team, teams and subteams, so I decided not to make this an official word in our vocabulary.

But what then?

Some experts use the word unit, as in “a team is a goal-oriented social unit”. It sounds technically correct, but I find that the word unit itself is somewhat dehumanizing. It can refer to people, devices, measurements, molecules, departments, almost anything you can think of. “I am part of the social media unit,” doesn’t sound like something people would enjoy saying. As member of our governance unit, I vote against it.

The Holacracy framework refers to people working in circles. When I saw this word being used as an alternative to teams, the first thing I wondered was whether this also makes people’s work go in circles. Like unit, the word circle is a bit too abstract for me. And don’t forget the Wiccan association: ghosts of dead people seem to be attracted to witches in circles, not squares or triangles. This is something I prefer to stay away from.

The employees at Spotify experimented with the term squad as a fancy alternative to team. The term sounds more human than both units and circles: all its definitions refer to people. However, the contexts most often associated with the term squad are the police and the army. And when I saw that Google Search offered “assassination squad” as the first example, I knew that this is not the best word to use in our organization.

And then there’s the word cabal which has been used by game studio Valve, among others. It certainly refers to people with a purpose. However, the behaviors of cabals, according to the dictionary, are often associated with secrecy, intrigues, and plots to overthrow a government. As a leader in our company, with an eye on self-preservation, the term cabal may not be the smartest of choices.

OK, what else is there?

Clique, faction, band, party, gang, cell, club, ring, brigade, platoon, mob…

I found only one word suitable to describe a small group of professionals doing creative work together.

crew \’krü\noun

  • the group of people who operate a ship, airplane, or train
  • a group of people who do a specified kind of work together
  • a group of people associated together in a common activity or by common traits or interests

The dictionary associates the word crew with people operating machines (factory crews), people who serve travellers (flight crews, ship’s crews), people who build things together (construction crews), and technical people on a creative mission (film crews, theater crews, or crews of music bands).

That’s the word we need!

Form Crews, Not Teams
Words come with meaning. Words convey ideas and intentions to people. It makes quite a difference whether you call someone a Call Center Agent or a Customer Happiness Officer. Maybe it means nothing to the customer, but it can mean everything to the employee! Likewise, people may feel and behave differently depending on whether you refer to them as circles or crews.

It makes quite a difference whether you call someone a Call Center Agent or a Customer Happiness Officer.

Words should be chosen wisely.

At my company Happy Melly, we decided not to have teams, units, circles, squads or cabals. Bands, gangs and platoons were definitely out of the question. Instead, we have crews who are on a creative mission, while serving customers, operating tools and building stuff. The benefit of adopting the word crew is that we had never used this word before. It came without baggage, and with the right kind of associated contexts and meanings.

We have crews on a creative mission, serving customers, operating tools, and building stuff.

History will prove if we chose correctly.

This article was written by Jurgen Appelo from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


Comment this article

Great ! Thanks for your subscription !

You will soon receive the first Content Loop Newsletter