Team building is out, team growing is in

The concept of growing a team instead of building a team has been around a long time. It seems to have started with Frederick P Brooks in his book “The mythical man-month” written over 30 years ago. He believed that the “building metaphor has outlived its usefulness” and that “the conceptual structures we construct today are too complicated to be accurately specified in advance and too complex to be built faultlessly, then we must take a radically different approach”.

So why do we persist with the term “team building”? I believe it’s because it’s easier for many technical managers to deal with inanimate objects that it is to deal with people. Building involves taking materials and logically turning them into something productive. You can determine in advance what you want to achieve and, with the right skills and equipment, reproduce an exact replica of a blueprint.

People aren’t like that. Just because someone has the skills to perform a role doesn’t mean they will perform it. Just because a reporting structure should work doesn’t mean it will. Just because you give someone the title of manager doesn’t mean they can manage. Things get in the way. Things like personalities, past experiences and perceptions.

We have moved on from the industrial age and are now in the information age. People are at the heart of most organisations. Today successful business is about intellectual capital not capital works. So stop treating people like pieces of wood you can build into a structure and start treating them like living beings that will naturally grow if given the right conditions.

Like a good garden, what makes a good team comes down to intangibles and most technical managers aren’t good at dealing with them. They want the black and white, right and wrong, one size fits all solution. Gardeners know that doesn’t work. They know you can put five plants in the same garden bed, four will thrive and one will die. Often there is no logic to it, just like with people. You can do all the right things . . . give them good soil, water them, give them regular fertiliser and protect them from pests and they will still die! That’s nature. Just like you can’t command a plant to grow faster, you can’t command a person to work harder.

So let’s stop talking about team building and start talking about team growing. Let’s look at what we can do to let people naturally develop rather than force them to fit neatly into a predetermined size and shape. 


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Comment by Jo Hanlon on November 25, 2011 at 9:57

What a good BLOG. As a visual person, I especially like the analogy of planting 5 plants and letting them grow and thrive because you are SO right and I got that picture. However it's also good to adapt your approach (inputs) differently to different plants (people) and give them what they need to grow and thrive as individuals rather than just one approach. But in general I like the concept. Good one Karen.

Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on November 25, 2011 at 10:19

Gardening and workplaces make for interesting analogies.  Just as you can't simply make a garden bed and put in some seeds and expect them to thrive, you have to make some selection choices e.g. type of bed, location, soil, water, maintenance and seed selection. Some seeds will not grow with others (just as some people don't like working with others), some plants will be high maintenance (like some people), and some plants will impact on others in the environment (e.g. Robyn Gordon grevilleas causing asthma for some people).  Workplaces can be like that - it takes a lot of work to get the best out of people, and at the risk of sounding like a heretic, there are a lot of I's in TEAM.  The test is growing the I's so that they can work in a team environment.  I had a very interesting conversation yesterday with a colleague about the future of workplaces considering the technological advances being made.  In his view, whilst people will be expected to contribute to 'team' issues, in reality, they will not be in a face to face environment, the technology they use in a cyber world will facilitate how they grow, and managers will need to across the various nuances of how to make this happen.  Unfortunately, in his view, older managers are struggling to keep up with the technological change simply because 'the organisation' is not addressing their needs.  This is a bit like a garden when you put in some seeds and expect them to grow in line with everything in the garden.  In some cases, the older plants get strangled because younger, faster growing plants get all the attention.

Comment by Karen Schmidt on November 25, 2011 at 10:34

Jo and Bernard,

Thanks for the comments. I agree with all your points. This is one of many blog posts I've written on the topic and others go into the more detailed considerations you both mentioned. If you want to read more go to 

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