"Teamwork" - alongside ironic (yes, I'm looking at you Alanis Morisette), awesome and literally, must be four of the most misused words in the modern English lexicon. To illustrate my point, yesterday I punched the word "teamwork" into Youtube. It proudly informed me it had uncovered over 215,000 videos relevant to my search term. Without even having to scroll past the first page, my suspicions about the misuse of the word 'teamwork' were confirmed. For visual evidence of this I present to you Exhibits A, B & C (click to view).
Over the 25 years that I have been working in organisations on team performance and collaboration, I have noticed that periodically it becomes popular for academics and theorists to suggest that teamwork is actually detrimental to organisations and that outstanding individuals will achieve more than teams. I am occasionally alerted to articles and books of this nature by colleagues, clients and friends and always read them with interest.
What I have found however, is that far too often criticisms of teamwork are made about examples of poor teamwork, or cases which may resemble but are not actually teamwork at all.
The next blog posts will be a two part mini-series;
- a closer look at how the concept of teamwork is often misinterpreted, leading to misdirected criticism of teams, and then
- defining situations when teams and when star individuals are/are not appropriate.
In this post I will take a look at a blog which was recently sent to me by a colleague. The blog "Why a Great Individual Is Better Than a Good Team" by Jeff Stibel was published online by the Harvard Business Review in 2011. It is an interesting read, but rather than provide evidence of how teamwork is inferior to great individuals it merely cites examples of ineffectual teamwork, or mis-applications of teamwork. Below, I will examine and respond to some of the key arguments made by the HBR blog.
- Jeff Stibel HBR Quote: "The truth is, our brains work very well individually but tend to break down in groups ("groupthink").
- Response: Undoubtedly 'groupthink' is a real phenomenon, and is a trap which teams must work very hard to steer away from. However, if team members genuinely commit to active listening and straight talking with sound and clearly defined meeting structures, it can be relatively easily avoided. Perhaps the most famous case of a team experiencing groupthink, learning from the incident and then becoming stronger as a result is the way President Kennedy and his advisors handled the Bay Of Pigs Invasion and then the Cuban Missile Crisis soon after. When planning the Bay Of Pigs invasion, no-one on Kennedy's team of advisors was allowed to challenge the underlying assumption that Cuba was just waiting to rise up against Castro. Non-agreement with this assumption resulted in individuals being removed from dialogue. Ultimately, the assumption proved false and the invasion was a disaster. Kennedy however, learned from this failure and altered his processes. During the Cuban Missile Crisis he teamed his advisors with colleagues to create constructive tension in the team. In the end, this positive use of dialogue was a great success.
- Jeff Stibel HBR Quote: "The value of a contributor decreases disproportionately with each additional person contributing to a single project, idea or innovation. When anactivity can be performed sufficiently by one person with adequate skills, doing the activity as a group should be avoided."
- Response: I couldn't agree more with this quote - but with a distinction added. Teamwork is advantageous in many situations while in others it may not be. But just because I don't form a team to tie my shoelaces it doesn't mean I have given up on teamwork and will then construct a shoe-tying case study as an argument against teamwork as a useful concept. Stibel's quote is most applicable when adding to teams which already number 7 or more. Best practice thinking and research generally points to effective work teams having between 3 and 7 members, with the ideal size being 3-5. Within these size constraints, adding a contributor (assuming she has relevant complementary talents) will increase the value of the team.
- Jeff Stibel HBR Quote: "Mediocre minds can also destroy the value or contribution of a great mind... take Michelangelo's David as an example. A second artist cutting into David would cause massive destruction to the sculpture, even if that artist was Picasso. With each successive stroke of the chisel from additional artists, David's value, beauty, and overall impact would diminish."
- Response: Once again this is simply a misidentification of the time and place to use teamwork, rather than proof that great individuals will accomplish more than teams. We could equally choose to examine situations where two great minds coming together produce outcomes far beyond what each can achieve as individuals. Lennon and McCartney, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, George Burns and Gracie Allen are all examples which prove that given the right situation the overall impact of collaboration is a powerful one.
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History is punctuated continually by examples of star teams producing truly outstanding results. Equally, there are untold numbers of situations where the misapplication of teamwork has 'hamstrung' efforts of a group. The latter should not however, as Stibel would like to, be used as ammunition to argue against the effectiveness of teams. They should merely serve to remind us of 'red-flag' scenarios where a team is not the most effective work structure.
The power of an effective team is a brilliant thing, but it does not come about arbitrarily. We must identify the right situations to engage suitable individuals and processes to really harness the strength of teams and teamwork. In next week's post I will take a more in-depth look at some classic examples of when teams and when star individuals are/are not appropriate. At first glance Pixar, airplane cockpit crews, political advisory groups and surgical teams appear to have little in common. In their own ways though they have shaped and changed our world through exemplary teamwork, and are all fascinating examples to reflect on as we consider when and how to effectively deploy teams.
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