How to structure teams for organising

In 2015 I completed a course in organising with Marshall Ganz: Leadership, Organizing and Action. Ganz’ deconstructs organising into five crafts: public narrative, relationships, structure (covered in this post), strategy, and action. In this post I review Ganz’ treatment of structure. All unsourced quotations come from the course.

Organisers develop leaders to build teams. The organising snowflake is about relationships between individuals, fostered and cemented through story. But these individuals, working together, what are they? A team! And you can’t have an organising team without some great structure.

Structure determines if teams will build leadership.

“Developing leadership requires structuring the work of the organization so it affords as many people as possible the opportunity to learn to lead.” – Marshall Ganz

Team structure can make it so that there are plenty of roles for different team members to fulfill, so that people are accountable to the group, so that growth happens. As Jo Freeman points out in The Tyranny of Structurelessness, an absence of formal structure can lead to elites co-opting the group for their own purposes. Good structure not only helps the group to stay focused on and achieve its purpose – it ensures that the group develops in the proces.

What is it that we want our team structure to achieve? From research into high-performing teams from, of course, Harvard, it turns out that three objectives are attained by great teams:

  1. Firstly, they get the job done.
  2. Secondly, the team itself grows in capacity: relationships are stronger and people are better at working together.
  3. Thirdly, individuals in the team learn from the process and each has more to offer to the team.

If our teams aren’t achieving this, we aren’t organising. It’s not enough just to get the job done – as organisers, we must be ensuring that the process of getting the job done also grows capacity. So it’s pretty important that the team structure enables this.

How to structure great teams

Ganz offers an amalgam of his own ideas with those of Ruth Wageman, author of Senior Leadership Teams. He suggests that we start with having a team that is “bounded”. It should be clear who is, and who is not, on the leadership team. It should be clear what is expected of people who are in the team. Secondly, teams should be “stable” – the same people should keep turning up. This makes sense, hey? If teams members are going to grow, and the team is going to deepen, the same people need to keep working together. Thirdly, the team is “interdependent”: there is a shared purpose that members work towards in different, complementary, capacities.

In one of my first experiences of organising, I led a new team working on recruitment for a youth climate summit. We had a clear shared purpose and met each week to check our progress, brainstorm activities, and allocate responsibilities. The same people kept coming back, fostering accountability and community. It was clear who was in the team because they were turning up and completing actions. This was (serendipitously!) an effective team.

So those are three conditions. But how do we create these? Well, I’m glad you’ve asked.

First up comes “purpose”. The team can hardly be interdependent if it doesn’t know why it exists! The team’s purpose should be distinct from the organisation’s purpose: what is this team’s unique contribution? How are they part of the picture? Wageman indicates that the purpose should be “clear”, “challenging”, and “consequential”. It should be clear what difference achieving it would make. The purpose should be hard enough (yet easy enough) to foster learning and growth. And achieving it should mean something for the organisation and others.

Second comes norms – endorsed by both Ganz and, it turns out, Google. The team should make agreements about how its members behave together and relate to each other. At heart this is about a team taking responsibility for how it works and establishing standards to maintain effectiveness. Without norms it’s harder to have a bounded, stable team, and hard to start correcting if the team, or team members, start underperforming. Establishing norms can be as simple as bringing a team together and saying – what expectations do we have of ourselves and each other? what commitments will we make to each other to help this team to flourish? what behaviour do we want to be able to expect from each other?

Thirdly, roles. Each person should have responsibility for a share of the work, matched to their resources and interests. These “roles” don’t need to be titled positions over 6 months – it can simply be a particular task to complete or responsibility to hold from one meeting to another. Even this is enough that people grow in commitment and identification with the team. If this is going to fly though, accountability is crucial: “responsibility is only real…if the person is clearly accountable for the responsibility he or she accepted.” Responsibility shouldn’t be allocated to people unless they will be held to account.

In sum, groups that know what they’re trying to do, know how they’re going about doing it, and know who is doing what, develop into bounded, stable teams with a diversity of resources. This allows them to get the job done, while the group itself gets more effective over team, and team members enjoy and learn from the experience.

Structure teams to go the distance

Organising is fundamentally about leadership – and leaders must have followers. If these followers are to work effectively with their leaders, the teams should have a clear, challenging and consequential purpose. They should have norms. And team members should have roles. This leads to a team that is bounded, stable, and interdependent. And that is the best way to ensure that a team not only achieves its goals, but that it and its members grow stronger in the process. Thus, knowing how to structure teams is essential for organisers who don’t just want to win for now, but want to be able to keep winning into the future.


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