Being a part of or utilizing a system has to do with strategic facilitation, representing organization design, solving problems and the problem(s) to be solved. Systems are in place to smooth the way for the team, and provide those individuals' talents the best chance at achieving desired results.

Why does it matter if you as an employee work as part of a system or a team? In which entity you find yourself a part is the critical factor for how you perform. And where you land gives you the topography of perspective.

Understanding similarities and differences of systems and teams is important to making sense of the workplace and improving one's career.

Systems of people and teams of people have a lot in common. In my experience, systems have been treated as teams; simultaneously, teams have been treated as systems.

They are different, though. And the difference matters.

What's The Difference?

I will share actual definitions later. For now, and in plain English, what is a system and what is a team?

A system is

  • a design or configuration, e.g. a smattering of individual workstations;

  • an entire office or an organization or really any collection of people that is too large to actively/literally work together; or

  • a process-based arm of an organization, e.g. a manufacturing plant.

People may visually and sequentially provide support to one another, but not in an interconnected way such that one person serves the others directly - others being plural. When the exchange is limited to one-on-one, then teamwork is a pairing, isn't it? That's not a team. Batman and Robin were the Dynamic Duo, not the Dynamic Team.

A system of people excessively stretches the idea of a team too far for the people to participate with one another, a cooperation.

That leaves what's left as a team:

  • Numerous people deliberately interacting with one another;

  • Cooperation and contiguous interconnectedness amongst the majority if not all of the team members.

There are a few ways to look at this rather intriguing business operations association.

A [system or team] is more than the sum of its parts. [1]

That quote comes from the book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella H. Meadows. Can you figure which word, system or team, was original to the text?

OK, the book's title is a giveaway (system). Still, the point is well made.

More often than not, we replace system with team as opposed to team with system. It's an effort to get the job done mixed with the not-so-misplaced idea of synergy. That is to say swapping the two is not definitionally inaccurate as we'll learn. It does strip one concept of its broader characteristics, and dehumanizes the other. When replacing system with team, the message sender offers a certain bill of goods while the receiver will get a slightly different proof of purchase, if you will. Words matter.

For sure, these drawbacks have implications. It comes down to the following distinction:

  • As part of or functioning within a system, one operates.

  • As part of or participating within a team, one cooperates.

Synonymic though they may be, here we begin to see some definitional divergence.

Oh, The Humanity Of It All

Systems and teams should not be conflated as they are. They seem swappable, but they’re not.

Read carefully those definitions of operate and cooperate (above). Systems operate. They do not necessarily need people to exist, thrive or fail. The simplest benchmark is the phrase 'cog in a system'. People are not cogs. They only operate in such a way - meaningfully or demeaningly, as it were.

How so?

Teams cooperate. Teams unconditionally involve people. Two or more systems may operate together. In those cases, they're referred to as the broader system or a system of systems, a meta-system. Contrastingly, the opposite of the benchmark does not make sense, a 'cog in a team'.

Systems Facilitate The Team

My 'cog' argument isn't just a matter of dissimilarity.

Being a part of or utilizing a system has to do with strategic facilitation, representing organization design, solving problems and the problem(s) to be solved. Systems are in place to smooth the way for the team, and provide those individuals' talents the best chance at achieving desired results. Being on a team means the ability to take part in a system and/or provide human intelligence. Cogs simply don't serve the latter.

Here are some definitions to further consider:

Concluding to the extent of repeating my point, team definitions involve people. Systems do not need people to exist, thrive, or fail.

Systems = Strategy

A deeper dive into Meadows' systems principles develop the explanation.

  • A system is more than the sum of its parts.

  • Many of the interconnections in systems operate through the flow of information.

  • The least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose, is often the most crucial determinant of the system's behavior.

  • System structure is the source of system behavior. System behavior reveals itself as a series of events over time. [1]

Systems are unique given their parts, interconnections, flows of information, individual purpose (even reliant upon or in support of other systems), structures and behaviors over time. Strategies have many of these same properties. Therein I advance the distinction.

Like strategies, systems may be replicated, but never identically.

There's No Cog In Team

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash.

The Chicago Bulls won 6 NBA championships running what is called the Triangle Offense. "The triangle offense, also known as the triple-post offense, is a basketball offense strategy that places all five players in a complex arrangement design, allowing them an array of scoring opportunities." [6] In this way, the team relied on a system to score points.

Take notice of the word 'strategy' used in that quote. Oh, and don't overlook the word 'complex' either. That's code for unique.

Every player functioned in a particular way to meet the system's specifications and intent. Couldn't any team use that strategy?

In fact, let's take that question a step further.

If it worked for the Chicago Bulls, and they won so many championships with that system, then why didn't every other team adopt, or replicate, the Triangle Offense system? Wouldn't that have led to a championship for them, too?

Answer: NO.

The reason is that people make up organizations.

Individuals make up teams.

Systems are strategic use of interconnected elements with purpose resulting in behaviors over time. The elements in this equation are the team members. Their individuality, collectively, created a team that was best served through the use of the Triangle Offense (i.e. not some other offensive strategy).

If the right personnel is not available to make the system successful, then the strategic use of that system will fail to produce the desired results. That is why other teams' adoption of the Triangle Offense likely would not have worked to the degree it did with the Bulls.

The point here is that systems must undergird teams, and not the other way around. So if we're a part of a system, then there must be strategic sense behind our appointment. Without that strategic sense, people become interchangeable cogs. The notion of interchangeability belies their, the individuals', design to cooperate.

When would-be team members become system cogs, there's a dehumanizing effect. If every team could utilize the Triangle Offense, then it would no longer be a strategy - uniqueness would be lost, and competitive advantage would be moot. The scheme would be as fundamental as is dribbling, rebounding, the pick-and-roll, and the like. No, it is the personnel--the team--that makes systems workable, relatable, manageable, fitting and appropriate.

Teeming With Systems

Systems such as accounting systems, scheduling systems and things like that are essential. In fact, these systems transcend offices, organizations and industries. They remain strategic as cogs in systems of systems. The meta-system's makeup is a scaled uniqueness that supports teams to do their jobs without mentioning the organization's intent on providing its customers with value. If my point about systems supporting teams wasn't accessible, then a meta-system's makeup surely hits home.

Systems are strategic entities. People can operate within them for the purpose of facilitating processes and procedures. More fundamentally, people cooperate in teams. It's when we errantly swap the two that we sacrifice the viability of strategy, and the humanity of those who make organizations go.


[1] Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008, pp. 2, 4-5, 188.

[2] “Operate.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, htthttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/operate. Accessed 24 Jun. 2022.

[3] “Cooperate.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cooperate. Accessed 24 Jun. 2022.

[4] “Team.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/team. Accessed 23 Jun. 2022.

[5] American Society for Quality. "What Is A Team? Types Of Teams & Processes | ASQ". asq.org, https://asq.org/quality-resources/teams.

[6] MasterClass staff. "Triangle Offense In Basketball: How The Triangle Offense Works". Masterclass.Com | Articles | Sports & Gaming, 2022, https://www.masterclass.com/articles/triangle-offense-guide#a-brief-history-of-the-triangle-offense. Accessed 24 June 2022.