The Fallacy of Teamwork Part I: Train of Thought
Companies expect great things from teamwork, which is frequently viewed as a panacea and a cure-all. Enormous expectations are placed on teams matched by absolute faith in the validity of applying the team-sports model to business activities and work. How accurate is this model?
An individual train leaves New York at noon heading west to Los Angeles at X mph. Simultaneously, a team of ten trains leave Los Angeles heading east to New York at Y mph. X is the speed of thought. Y is the speed of talk. Where do the trains meet and which covers the most ground? Currently, neuroscience can answer this question while awaiting the day discussed in two recent Times articles when AI will give the correct answer:
Beyond the issue of what particular model to use for business collaboration is the larger question of when it makes sense to use teams at all instead of recruiting effort at the individual level. Based on my own professional experience I think it is a mistake to blindly assume that teams are always and everywhere better at performing work than individuals. Teams can stifle creativity (Xerox and the Alto), discourage initiative ("Social Loafing"), provoke destructive rivalries (Disney's Eisner-Ovitz clash), while “groupthink” and “group shift” can lead companies off a cliff.
One experienced management consultant wasn’t afraid to speak bluntly (but anonymously): “Building a really high-performing executive team at the highest level is a mirage….When such teams do exist, they’ll consist mostly of two people, maybe three.” ("Failing to Build a Culture of Trust"). Thus the train of thought leaving New York has room for just two people: a pilot and a conductor who play the roles of mentor and protégé. This agrees well with the adage "two’s company, three’s a crowd.”
The neurons inside an individual brain (usually) communicate with one another far better than the very best teams. The best teamwork in the world is what goes on inside our own heads. This is undoubtedly the physical basis for the fact that the highest levels of human achievement are dominated by individuals, not teams. Name one great painting that is the work of a team.
The question of how to organize work should be answered rationally, based on the circumstances, resources and needs of a project with no bias in favor of any one particular approach. While team collaboration may be useful and necessary most of the time, Plan B should be considered as well. Plan B would involve supplementing team projects by recruiting the effort of a single internal employee who would work alone, and whose efforts would be a ‘cross-check’ against the work product of the team. This would require organizations to pretend that the designated individual is an ‘outside consultant’ and give him exactly the same resources, access and status that would be given to any outside consultant.
For over-large, ossified and bureaucratic companies individuals may be the last untainted reservoir of creativity and analytical acuity available to diagnose their illnesses and propose treatments. Why is it that large companies routinely hire much smaller ‘boutique’ consulting firms for help and advice? Organizational size can itself be a disease, as is contemplated by the proposed Volcker Rule that would downsize financial industry firms. What is achieved by regulation for financial companies could be achieved by wisdom for all other colossi.
In many cases teams will be a compromise, a half-measure and last resort. There is one factor that requires the use of teams: necessity. Sometimes the scale and complexity of work are so great that no one individual can accomplish the task. Unless Superman or Superwoman promptly arrives on the scene work must be organized using teams. Realistic expectations, pre-established protocols for communicating, and clear guidlines for performance will go a long ways in making a team effective. Ironically, some of the best teamwork between people (instead of between neurons) is non-verbal: compare the exquisite performances of a world-class string quartet or ballet troupe to the best colloboration achieved by a business team.
Ultimately, business needs teams to get work done. Teams should be seen for what they are: one tool among many, with inherent limitations and costs as well as capabilities.
Certified Public Accountant Master of Business Administration
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