Teams and crews

One of the most entertaining sessions at last months’s Agile in the City: Birmingham was from Martin Burns, discussing teams in relation to performing music. And of all the points he made, the simplest and most compelling to me was the distinction between teams and crews. The dynamics of a team, he said, changed significantly when you changed individuals (added, removed, swapped, etc), whereas if you had a crew you could swap new people in and out without impacting their output significantly.

As his examples, he gave the Happy Mondays and the Sugababes. In the Happy Mondays, Bez apparently “did nothing”—which is to say he didn’t sing or play an instrument. He just seemed to hang around with the rest of the band. But the others refused to get rid of him because they saw him as an essential part of the dynamic that made them the success they were. They saw themselves as team. By contrast the Sugababes had a continual stream of members arriving and leaving—so much so that Wikipedia has charted them on a graphical timeline—and it seemed to have no discernible impact on the music. This is a crew.

Of course “team versus crew” is not really binary. And if you stand back far enough any team can be seen as a crew: a senior executive, distant from a team, and seeing continued strong output, wouldn’t see the work line managers undertake to cope with leavers, joiners, and subtle shifts in technology or architecture.

Nevertheless, I find this distinction is a useful one in explaining team complexities to those one or two steps removed from the work. The dynamic of a team, and the roles members play, depends hugely on individual personality, skill, experience and more. We can’t swap one person out and expect things to continue as before. A team is not crew.

Photo by Drew Streib