I’ve seen teams that worked well and other teams that were so ineffective that merely being dysfunctional would have been a step in the right direction. But I’m not one who takes issue with the value of a team approach. It’s others who take that view.
In fact, there’s a school of thought that teams are not the creative entities they’re often thought to be. According to Harvard University professor Richard Hackman, an authority on teams, “Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.”
Furthermore, Hackman points out that newness can be a liability. Teams that have been together for a period of time perform better than teams whose membership is periodically changed. So, rather than injecting creativity into a team, changing who is on the team may actually hamper performance.
Among other reasons that teams don’t work are backstabbing, interrupting, whining, not sharing knowledge, tardiness, leaks of confidential information, and going off on tangents in meetings. Nevertheless, many teams seem to do just fine.
Of course, no one seems to be arguing for the elimination of teams. Despite problems that have occurred among airline crews, it takes a team to fly an ocean-crossing jet. Team sports require, well, teams. Communication and coordination are critical in construction teams, but no one suggests that someone single-handedly build a skyscraper. And while many smartphone apps have been developed by individuals, most software development requires teams.
Clearly, the solution isn’t to dispense with teams, but to figure out what makes them function effectively. Among other things, teams seem to work best when people know who is on the team (apparently, they often don’t) and team members have a compelling direction, clearly stated norms, a supportive organization, and expert coaching on group process.
In addition, teamwork requires a culture that values collaboration and the belief that planning and decision making are better when done cooperatively. It’s also necessary that executive leaders clearly communicate that teamwork and collaboration are expected. And these very leaders must model teamwork in the way they interact and communicate with each other and the rest of the organization.
Especially important (and fascinating), Hackman stresses that every team needs a deviant. This is “someone who can help the team by challenging the tendency to want too much homogeneity, which can stifle creativity and learning.” Deviants keep a team from becoming complacent by being willing to comment on what others don’t see or are reluctant to articulate.
They’re willing and able to take a step back, look at what’s happening, and say, “Hey, wait a minute, why are we doing this?” Of course, in raising issues others may not want to hear, deviants may be resisted, ignored, or even bumped from the team. But according to Hackman, it’s when a team loses the deviant that the team can become mediocre.”
Who’s the deviant on your team? You, perhaps?
Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.