Top teams understand the 4 different types of Teamwork in Nature

What do we mean by “Teamwork”? We often talk about Teamwork as if its a singular thing however in nature there are 4 different types – each of which have a very precise meaning. I call these Solowork, Crowdwork, Groupwork and Teamwork itself. An effective team knows how and when to use each type – an ineffective team only uses one!

What is ‘Teamwork’?
When we talk about Teamwork we generally mean different things. For some a team is a group of people with a shared purpose. For others a team must also have a deadline. For others a team must also embody some degree of co-operative working. If we are really serious about improving teams and teamwork then we need to get more rigourous around what we actually mean.

A Biological definition of ‘teamwork’
Carl Anderson and Nigel Franks [1] have undertaken unique research into insects, animal, human and even robot teams. They are interested in the degree to which these different groups are capable of exhibiting ‘teamwork’. To do this they developed a rigourous but practical way to assess whether particular group activities constitute ‘teamwork’.

Teams undertake different kinds of tasks
If instead of focusing on the team members we look instead at the tasks they undertake together we find four types:
1. Individual Task
2. Group Task
3. Partitioned Task
4. Team Task

Individual Tasks
These can be completed by single individuals without help. I call it ‘Solowork’. Solowork is an important aspect of organisational team behaviour – sometimes it’s the best way to get things done.

Group Tasks
These tasks require multiple team members to do the same activity concurrently. For example, ants or soccer supporters conducting ritual symbolic displays in territorial battles with another groups. There is concurrency but no division of labour where different individuals must do the same things at the same time. I call this ‘Crowdwork’. Crowdwork has a place in organisational teams such as team review meetings, brainstorming and team social gatherings. However crowdwork can also be an indication of poor role definition and consequent misuse of resources. For example a meeting where everyone starts to play the same role at the same time generally does not produce useful outcomes.

Partitioned Tasks
This is where a task is split into two or more subtasks that can be organised sequentially. For example for a Bee “Collect and Store Nectar” can be split into Sub-Task 1 “Collect Nectar” and Sub-Task 2 “Store Nectar”. There is division of labour but no concurrency. I call this ‘Groupwork’. Lots of organisational teamwork can be achieved through Groupwork – it lends itself particularly well to asynchronous communication methods such as email and shared document areas.

Team Tasks
This requires multiple individuals to perform different tasks concurrently. Different individuals must do different things at the same time. There is both division of labour and concurrency. This is real ‘Teamwork” and requires the most complex co-ordination between team players. In biological teams “Teamwork” is used extensively for critical activities such as responding to a threat or exploiting an opportunity.

What blends of ‘teamwork’ does your team practice?
Your should try to assess the different kinds of teamwork in your teams.
For example, take a look at the way your team does Collaborative Document Development. One popular approach is that a single author develops the entire document, copies it to the other members and then decides what to do with all their review comments. This looks mostly like Solowork with a little bit of Groupwork at the end.
Another common approach is to break the document up into multiple independent sections each with a different author. They are independently reviewed and edited. A single author is appointed to pull the document together via a management summary and common formatting for the different sections. This still pure Groupwork but still not Teamwork.
A more Teamwork-oriented approach to this would be to allocate each team member certain horizontal responsibilities which span document sections (Teamwork) plus some vertical responsibilities for specific sections of the document (Solowork) plus some group review responsibilities (Groupwork)

All forms of teamwork and collaboration are needed in a team:
Each type of teamwork is appropriate for certain tasks – a bioteam uses them all and in the right context:
Solowork is a valid and useful activity in teams – in certain situations it is simply the most efficient way to get things done
Groupwork lends itself well to asynchronous communication methods
Crowdwork may point to poor team role definition which wastes team members time
Teamwork (in the biological sense) seems to be relatively rare in organisational teams. It requires more co-ordination between team members because different individuals need to do different things at the same time.In biological teams “Teamwork” is used extensively for critical activities such as responding to a threat or exploiting an opportunity. We need to be able to use it effectively in our teams particularly for complex problem solving and situations where real creativity is required.

1. Anderson , C., Franks N., 1989. “Teamwork in animals, robots and humans”, Advances in the Study of Behavior, pp. 1-27
This article is based on an original article I wrote way back in January 2006.