There is an ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’. There Might be Three!

Like you, I’ve seen and read a lot of material stating “There’s no I in TEAM!” I respectfully disagree. Scrutinise successful teams around you, in any field. There’s always an I. The stronger the I, the more successful the team is likely to be. Every team needs at least one I, and if yours doesn’t, it’s missing something.

Obviously I’m not referring to the pronoun I or to the Individual. I’ll get to the I’s later.

As a team evolves, it develops I’s, and at some point every successful team will display some evidence of having mastered all three I’s. Exceptional teams go further, and begin the process with the first I all over again, reinventing themselves.

The first ‘I’ is ‘Identity’. It’s the sense of purpose that guides the team through its actions. The glue that binds it together. The self-belief that energises it when needed. The self-perception that sets it apart from similar cohesive units. It’s the crucial first step in team building.

When Starbucks opened its newest outlet in Budapest, all staff – regardless of their actual role – wore shirts announcing that they were part of the “Launch Team”. Launching that outlet was obviously their most important responsibility at that time, and they each had to do their job well to make it a success. While doing that, the team also recognised that they had to deliver a successful launch and had to work together to do so.

Sports are a great example of identity. The All Blacks identity stands for so much more than the nation, or the specific sports the team represents. Indeed aspiring sportsmen often talk about becoming an All Blacks player with more passion than wanting to play rugby at the highest level.

Identity cannot be invented or imposed. It cannot be borrowed or transferred from another team. It rarely survives a second term. It exists in the team, is evident in the team’s actions, can be felt in the team’s gatherings. It’s up to the team leader to spot it, label it, preserve it and express it.

The second ‘I’ stands for ‘Intent’. Intent is distinct from objective. While the objective is the end point that the entire team is working towards, Intent qualifies that further. It identifies the characteristics that the team will display while working towards the objective. Something like team culture, but deeper. It’s closely linked to Identity.

A team I was privileged to coach was tasked with launching a brand that would be the fourth to enter the category. We defined the team’s intent as: Reach the objective in a manner that would surprise everyone, including ourselves. That definition mandated everyone to think and deliver beyond immediate capabilities. Very empowering thought, especially when the identity was the AVIS team (they had to try harder).

All teams in sports want to win, but not all teams are willing to do so ‘at any cost’. Some stay scrupulously within the rules, refusing to entertain grey areas. Individuals in these teams seek to be the best at their craft; making their skills so superior that competing strictly within the rules no longer remains a disadvantage.

The last ‘I’ stands for ‘Impact’. It is the residual effect of the team’s action on its immediate surroundings. This could be the marketplace, other teams in the company, the competition, teams in other industries, indeed any place where the team’s achievements are judged. If impact is felt beyond immediate surroundings, it’s likely to be lasting, and that team will be remembered long after its work is done.

For more than ten years, I worked with a creative director and a TV producer who represented professionalism of such high standards that they raised the standards of people we collaborated with. Their work left behind a legacy that set new benchmarks.

In cricket (a sport I love), serious fans still talk about the West Indies teams from the 70s and 80s in very reverent tones, tinged with wistful nostalgia. With their unique brand of aggressive cricket they took the sports to new heights that have remained unmatched since.

So ignore what the pundits say about there not being an I in TEAM. Dig deep for the one in yours. If you’re really lucky, you might find all three. As team leader it’s the most important service you can do for your team.

All the best!

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