Teaming teams


Harry Greenspun, M.D.

Chief Medical Officer, Managing Director, Health Solutions

Korn Ferry

April 23, 2018

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This past weekend our sons’ cycling team, Rock Creek Velo hosted a racing clinic in conjunction with our largest competitor, Baltimore Youth Cycling. As two of the largest teams in the country, this was a bit of a “clash of the titans” pitting DC against Baltimore. Other teams from across the mid-Atlantic region attended as well. Scores of kids ages 9-14 showed up outside RFK Stadium in their matching team kits, along with their coaches, parents, and club leaders. Race officials checked the course and set up their video gear at the finish line as team tents popped up in the infield. It looked just like the starting line at a stage of the Tour de France, except with much shorter riders.


These are not casual clubs. All compete nationally and several of the kids who showed up had earned championship medals. The kids eyed each other sternly. Although they didn’t know each other, they could recognize their nemesis from their helmets, glasses, and race bikes, having swapped positions on countless podiums. They signed their waivers, attached their number plates, and began warming up.


Then something extraordinary happened. “Look at the color stripe on your number plate,” one of the coaches yelled. “That’s your team. Go to the coach wearing that color and pick up your vest.” Jerseys emblazoned with logos and sponsors were covered up. Now there was just Red, Yellow, Green, and Blue. The new teams gathered, got introduced, and discussed strategy. In heat after heat, grouped by age and gender, as racers lined up, their teammates flanked the starting grid cheering exuberantly for their color. Kids who were once archrivals were now their biggest supporters.


Over the course of the day, competitors became teammates and teammates became friends.  Parents and club leaders who often just passed each other on the sidelines were now cheering for each other’s kids. As the event wrapped up, people were exchanging phone numbers and saying how much they were looking forward to the next clinic. Even the officials noted that this was the most fun they had ever had at a race.


So much focus within healthcare organizations is on the functioning of teams. However, in the process, there is a tendency to optimize how a group works together, rather than developing individuals who are capable of effectively moving from team to team. This phenomenon is often compounded in organizations that tend to rely on a limited number of people as needs arise (as highlighted by my colleague Chris Rowe in his recent blog). 


Having agile teams requires agile team members. They must be able to quickly engage with new partners to face new challenges. By regularly changing the make-up and structure of teams, you can reap multiple benefits.


  • Promote cross-team collaboration – With increasingly complicated tasks, teams must not only work together but with other teams. Building relationships across team lines is essential.

  • Create opportunities for newcomers – New teams create new teaming opportunities, allowing organizations to expand their bench.

  • Avoid “us vs. them” – The longer teams persist the greater the risk that they develop an “us versus them” mentality. The world becomes divided between the trusted inner circle and those trying to work against them.

  • Identify healthy (and unhealthy) dynamics – Often new combinations of people, skillsets, traits, and drivers can create unexpectedly creative and successful teams. Of course, occasionally the opposite is true, with clashes and in-fighting undermining progress. Organizations that have seen the full spectrum can quickly identify which scenario they are facing, allowing them to either capitalize on the situation or quickly course-correct.


A group of cyclists in a paceline ride wheel to wheel, drafting off each other to dramatically reduce their effort. Taking turns at the front, the better they can work together, the faster and farther they can go. Competing teams will often collaborate for much of a race, knowing it is in their mutual interest. However, the only way they are willing to do so is if they know and trust the other riders, so building cross-team bonds is critical.


P.S. If you’re interested in seeing some skilled young racers, photos are available here