Effective teams or efficient groups?

As a project manager, you have been asked to initiate a new project. The contract has been clarified, the project order has been signed and a rough plan has been drawn up. Now it's time to select people, assign project roles, clarify the collaboration model, and get started. What should you consider when putting together your project team? This depends very much on the type of working community you choose for your project: Will you choose a team or a group?
Four colleagues laugh in a modern office.


Team or group work?

Before you start selecting and assembling your project participants, you should decide which working mode is better suited to your task. Both modes have their advantages and disadvantages and also have implications for project management.

Good teams are effective

When either the project goal or the path to it is unclear or fraught with risk, or when many disruptions and changes are expected during project execution, teamwork is recommended. Good teams are like a Swiss army knife: They can handle different tasks, adapt flexibly to changing conditions and are able to fill competence gaps together. An effective team finds its own way to the goal.

Good groups are efficient

If your project is well planned and involves few uncertainties, you expect few deviations from the plan, and you need as smooth and continuous a performance as possible, group work is recommended. Groups are particularly successful when they work like a well-oiled machine. The cogs mesh perfectly, the process is well defined and there is no internal friction. The group works efficiently when each member knows and plays their role precisely and carries out their tasks as planned. A group is ideally suited to perform exactly the task for which it was formed.

A model for assembling groups and teams

Below, I present a model that uses nine criteria to help you assemble and align the ideal project team for your venture.
Figure 1
Three evaluation areas

The figure illustrates the three evaluation areas of the model, entitled 'assemble', 'align' and 'act', each in relation to the working community. These areas seem to suggest a chronological sequence in which the working community is first assembled and aligned before it begins to act. However, similar to Tuckman's team development model, these phases are neither strictly separate nor strictly sequential. Even during an ongoing project, the assembly (e.g. through turnover or reorganisation) or alignment (e.g. through change requests) may change. Then the evaluation criteria of the three areas have to be considered again. The division into these areas is only for the purpose of structuring the model.

Nine evaluation criteria

Each of the evaluation areas contains three criteria. For each criterion there are two possible characteristics: one that is particularly suitable for group work and one that is well suited to team work. The following figure gives an overview of all nine criteria and their assignment to the evaluation areas. The two characteristics of each criterion should be seen as endpoints of a continuum. These poles are deliberately clearly defined (and are described accordingly below) to make it easier to decide between the two options.
Nine evaluation criteria


The three criteria in the "Assemble" evaluation area are "Organisation", "Employee competencies" and "Diversity".
Figure 2

"Organisation" refers to the structural organisation of your project. The procedural organisation is considered in the "align" and "act" sections.
A group needs a clear distribution of roles so that each member knows their fixed place and area of responsibility within the project organisation. This role security is best achieved through a hierarchical structure, which you as the project manager need to define, communicate, establish and maintain.
In contrast, a team benefits from working together as equals, which requires a heterarchic form of organisation in which all team members are equal. In such a team, there is no hierarchical organisational chart with fixed reporting and decision paths. As a project manager, you do not set fixed guidelines; instead, team members coordinate their roles and the collaboration model among themselves.
Since team members are in constant bilateral exchange (see "align" and "act"), a team size of more than ten members is not practical, because the coordination effort increases quadratically with the number of members. However, working groups can be efficient with more than ten members if they are supported by a hierarchical structure and appropriate procedural organisation (see align).

Employee Competencies

"Employee competencies” include both professional skills and personality traits. In groups, professional skills are the key selection criteria. In contrast, teams require both professional skills and complementary personalities. This is necessary to cover the informal team roles required for successful teamwork, such as those identified in the Belbin model.

"Diversity” refers to the extent of demographic differences within a group, such as age, gender, cultural background or organisational affiliation. A low level of diversity is beneficial for a group. Homogeneous groups are characterised by more effective communication, fewer internal conflicts, lower absenteeism and higher performance in carrying out specific tasks.
Heterogeneous teams, on the other hand, can cover a wider range of solutions, deliver more coordinated results and be more creative in generating new ideas. While the process of assembling and establishing a work group is almost complete with the selection of people, building a diverse team requires additional steps to effectively integrate different strengths.


In the "align" evaluation area, the three criteria are "Goals", "Roles" and "Collaboration Model".
Figure 3

Teams need to agree, or at least accept, their goals together. Goals are unlikely to be achieved without the team's shared commitment. In groups, people should be aware of the goals and any goal changes as communicated by the group leader. However, an explicit commitment to the goals by the group or individual employees is not necessary. The achievement of goals in groups results from adherence to the project plan, and knowledge of the goals enables people to align their work with the project goals and to recognize when activities are not contributing to the achievement of the goals.
As the project manager of a work group, you only need to communicate the current goals. You alone are responsible for the attainment of the goals to the client.
Conversely, you cannot impose goals on a team, you can only suggest them. The team will then specify the goals, e.g. by setting intermediate goals. If the team does not believe it can achieve the goals set in the project assignment, you will have to adjust the project goals with your client - or assemble another team.


A team needs to coordinate and accept its roles together. Due to the heterarchic organisational structure of a team, individual coordination of roles is essential: Each role must be individually tailored to the skills and personalities of the team members. This co-ordination ensures that the agreed roles match personality traits and that everyone knows the tasks and responsibilities of the others.
In contrast, in a group, roles are assigned and announced by the group leader on the basis of people's professional skills. Documented role descriptions, such as fixed tasks, authorities and responsibilities for each role or use of a RACI matrix, ensure clarity, transparency and the clearest possible delineation of responsibilities.

Collaboration model

Teams need to agree and adopt their collaborative model together to ensure that it takes into account team members' personality traits, agreed roles and shared goals. This promotes effective collaboration that builds on the strengths of each individual.
In groups, the group leader takes responsibility for the collaboration model. He defines the process organisation, possibly based on a specific process model, and communicates this to the team. In a well-functioning group, each member adheres strictly to their role description, the instructions in the project manual and the current work instructions.
The collaboration model also includes dealing with potential skills gaps. In a group, such gaps can be filled by adding competent resources on a permanent or temporary basis, or by individual training of the people concerned. In contrast, team members learn from and with each other, allowing the team to grow with the challenges they face together.


In the final area of evaluation, 'act', the three criteria are 'interpersonal relations', 'dealing with conflict' and 'dealing with problems and deviations from the plan'.
Figure 4
Interpersonal relations

In a group, interaction is factual and task-oriented. Communication is aimed at gathering the necessary information for the task. Because of the non-overlapping and independent tasks, there is little need for bilateral coordination. Unresolved issues should be clarified by the group leader rather than bilaterally.
In contrast, communication within a team is respectful, open, honest, inclusive and appreciative. There is always a relationship and sometimes a task component to communication, with relationship clarification preceding task clarification. This style of communication fosters and maintains trust within the team. Teams and their members need psychological safety to make mistakes and to learn together from wrong decisions and deviations from the plan.

Dealing with conflict

In well-organised groups, relational conflicts are the exception, any open conflicts should be avoided as they impede progress. Task related conflicts are resolved through an established escalation process, with the option of replacing people in emergencies.
In teams, any conflict must be addressed openly and resolved by consensus. Unresolved conflicts damage the social fabric of the team and jeopardise the achievement of goals.

Dealing with problems and deviations from the plan

In groups, reporting a problem to the group leader relieves the reporting employee. The responsibility for solving the problem or dealing with deviations from the plan lies with the group leader.
In a team, everyone shares the responsibility for solving problems and dealing with deviations from the plan, as these threaten the team's common goals. Only together can necessary measures be decided and implemented.

Role of the group leader

The group leader has sole responsibility for the success of the project to the client. His main tasks include defining the project structure and detailed planning, including the assignment of specific work packages to each project member. These assignments are made through personal work instructions. The team leader monitors progress and initiates corrective action in the event of deviations from the plan. Personal contact between employees during working hours should be minimised and confined to breaks or planned social events.
With sole decision-making and directive authority, the group leader's leadership style is authoritarian, in line with the leadership styles identified by Kurt Lewin. In a large project group, specific tasks or areas of work can be delegated to other people or sub-project leaders. They can independently decide on the mode of operation (group or team) within their area of responsibility.

Role of the team leader

The team leader acts as a facilitator and supporter for their team. The success of the project is the responsibility of the entire team, and the team leader represents the team to the client. He is responsible for making the project status, and in particular progress, transparent to both the team and the client.
He facilitates the planning and distribution of work packages by facilitating workshops and keeping the planning transparent for everyone. Together with the project team, he monitors progress and informs the team of any deviations from the plan. Corrective actions are coordinated within the team.
As the project manager of a team, it is important to monitor compliance with the communication rules and to address any breaches within the team immediately. Rules and agreements are flexible and can be renegotiated by the team at any time. The team leader facilitates these discussions and documents the results.
The responsibility for implementation lies entirely with the team. The team leader's role is limited to creating optimal working conditions by providing the necessary infrastructure, protecting the team from external disturbances and removing obstacles. His leadership style is laissez-faire, which also refers to the leadership styles identified by Lewin.
Figure 5

Exemplary formation of a group

The creation and operation of a group is the sole responsibility of the group leader. As group leader, you have full responsibility for project definition, initialisation and the creation of an effective structural and procedural organisation.
During the planning phase, you will define work packages, preferably as individual tasks, and create a schedule that maps all business and technical dependencies. You then plan the deployment of ressources by assigning specific roles within the work packages. The result is a detailed schedule for each role in the project, showing the capacity requirements per role, allowing you to select appropriately qualified people.
The structural and procedural organisation you define is documented in a project manual. During a kick-off meeting, you present the project objectives, the organisational chart, the project roles you have defined, the key project processes, the overall phase plan and the detailed plan for the coming weeks. During this meeting, group members can ask questions for clarification, but there is no discussion about the goals, your decisions about the project organisation or the plan itself.
Throughout the project, you monitor progress and take decisions in the event of conflicts. You encourage a factual and task-oriented approach within the group. You will also be responsible for dealing with problems and deviations from the plan. If necessary, you will adjust the composition of your team.

Exemplary formation of a team

As the project leader of a team, your first task is to select suitable team members. To do this, you need to have a rough idea of the tasks to be completed in the project, so that the team as a whole can cover all the necessary tasks. More important than the individual qualifications of the candidates are the right personalities and sufficient diversity.
Once you have identified the initial project participants, you should involve them in the selection of other team members. Once the team is assembled, you take on the role of facilitator, providing a framework within which the team can coordinate roles, working models and so on. Ideally, this is done in workshops. Although the content required is similar to that of a project group, it needs to be coordinated and accepted by the team. You organise and facilitate these workshops and ensure that the results are clearly documented. The process can be time consuming and should not be terminated prematurely to avoid the risk of unresolved processes hindering delivery.
Throughout the project, you will support the team in daily, weekly, and at most monthly detailed planning and in the removal of obstacles to service delivery. You will be responsible for medium to long term project management processes, such as managing risks and expectations of key stakeholders, involving the team as required.
Through one-to-one meetings and in consultation with the team, you will track progress, coordinate project status and variances, and discuss corrective actions as necessary. You will then report the project status to the client.


Projects are business processes based on the division of labour that can be organised in two main ways: As coordinated individual work (group work) or through bilateral coordination between employees (teamwork). Group work is characterised by more efficient project execution and higher implementation speed, while teamwork offers a wider solution space and higher resilience to internal and external changes.
Groups need defined structures and a stable environment in order to perform at their best. Teams, on the other hand, benefit from freedom in terms of external constraints and decision-making scope to increase their effectiveness.
Depending on the task, both ways of working can be useful. The model presented supports the formation of both project groups and project teams. The group leader assumes a classic hierarchical leadership position with technical authority and bears sole responsibility for the group's work results. The team leader, on the other hand, facilitates and protects the project team in finding solutions and removes obstacles in order to enable smooth performance.
In practice, pure forms of working communities are rare. Most projects contain activities that are suitable for group work as well as those that are best tackled by a team. If the project is large enough, different work communities can be formed to cover both types of work. If this is not possible, the presented model offers guidelines for permanent or temporary adaptation of the working method to best support the respective activities.

Effective teams or efficient groups - the author
Author: Dr. Matthias Eberspächer, graduate physicist, works as a project manager in the public sector at msg in Munich and as a lecturer in portfolio and programme management at Landshut University of Applied Sciences. He is a Certified Senior Consultant and Coach (IPMA Level B) and Quality Management Specialist (QMF-TÜV).
He has gained his project experience since 2000 in the automotive, financial services, insurance, communications and public sectors. He is particularly interested in the optimisation of project process models, the development and management of project teams and methods for increasing the effectiveness of project management consulting.
Schlagworte: Projektmanagement, Leadership

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