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Friday, August 07, 2009

Does teamwork really produce better ideas?

It is an assumption which has deeply affected the structure of modern organizations, but is it true? I think it depends. The answer can only be decided after looking at the team itself. I see two factors: the dynamics of the team and the structure in which the team works.

If the team has good dynamics - including the ability to respect each team member for their contribution - then that will probably be an effective team. An example of such a team would be a group who went to Uni together and decided to jointly start a company. At least initially, I expect this team to have a high degree of internal respect and equality. As problems arise, they should be able to approach each other "as friends" to resolve their conflicts.

However, good team dynamics are hardly the norm. Modern teams are much more likely to be composed of people from very diverse backgrounds - with different levels of experience.

If a new person joined your team today and immediately suggested a radical idea - what is the likelihood of acceptance? What factors would contribute to the acceptance of the idea?

For most teams the answer is - probably not. This reasons are numerous.
- It takes time to build trust in a team member.
- New team members should understand the current process before suggesting improvements.
- Not invented here.
- Politics

But, ideally, the idea should be accepted if it makes money. Politics, personalities and presentation ability are factors which are independent of the idea itself and should therfore be removed from the equation.

Obviously, the real world doesn't work like that. So how can we accept the two notions that teamwork is holy AND politics affect the decision making process? if politics / personality is so important, then what is the point of a team working together to create the best ideas?

Teamwork and politics are opposing ideas.

What happens if we deny this point and insist they there is a synergy between the two concepts? Well, smart people will do their best to appear as team players while remaining selfishly focused on their own careers. Thoughts like, "what's best for the customer" and "what's the long-term impact" could only be offered in jest.

I think the end result of such denial would be entire organizations of yes men. Group think would be rampant and people would be discouraged from suggesting innovative new ideas simply because of the pointlessness of it. Either your team has already had the idea or a persons lack of position would lead to rejection. And let's not forget - you wouldn't want to make your boss look thick.

Which would lead to a catch 22. The only way of getting your ideas accepted would be to be successful. The only way to be successful would be to get your ideas accepted. ...or play politics. Unfortunately, I think this is an accurate picture of most large organizations. For too many employees the best option is to keep your mouth shut and do what you are told. So much for teamwork.

It is a shame because the answer is so simple - independent thinking. Of course, the implementation is difficult but certainly not impossible. In fact, a few minutes of thought and you are bound to come up 3 - 4 was to encourage independent thinking.

Here is an idea: disconnect the idea from the person. A "suggestion box" might be one way to do this - although obviously a large organization would need something more sophisticated. Once an idea is disconnected from the person presenting it, the idea can only be evaluated on merit.

Here is another: when discussing ideas require participants to take the opposite side. One way to do this would be to require people to take their opponents position. Who understands their opponents position better? This is likely the person who has given the problem the most thought.

...that should count for something.


Being a good team player is very important these days. But I agree, this is more like an entry to the CV than true.

Personally, I admit, I like working on my own, or if a very small team, whenever possible. I know sometimes I would do mistakes that nobody would see and I would need to resolve them later, but I feel better this way.

I hate when somebody in the team has an opposing idea and others credit him/her rather than me. :-) I could accept that, but I surely would lose a lot of potential because of that. Even if we are all really equal in the team and play as friends. The thing is we are people are we get frustrated if we cannot take our ideas at least to a try.

I know my comment is only touching the subject, but I wanted to say all these. Until now, working solely or within a very small team (2 members :-) or maximum 3) was better for me, for my potential, and for the outcome (results of the work)!

PS: Of course, sometimes larger teams are really needed (otherwise you just can't do the job), and in those cases it's a different story...

You make some good points Sorin. I think using small teams to circumvent politics is a great idea. I have never worked on a small team that was very political.

Also - small teams can be used create big things when the work is evenly divided. 3 architects instructing 3 teams of 3 developers kind of thing.

Maybe that is part of the solution? At any rate, I think there is a lot of lip service paid to teams and not many people really thinking about team effectiveness.

I also liked your point about "my potential". Being able to work to my potential is very important for me, but something I feel rarely able to do because of politics / team structure. Working as a team implies a certain "consistent output" from the team members which can be limiting. ...but I think that is another blog post. :-)

The best book ever is The Fountainhead, and it is all about the struggle of great minds like yours against the stultifying effects of hoi polloi.

Thanks Marcus. I read The Fountainhead a few years ago and you're right it's a fantastic book. I actually hadn't thought about individualism in this post, so your reference brings up another aspect.

I suppose I don't entirely agree with individualism in that I believe great things can be designed by committee. In fact, I think very few ideas originate in one mind. As an example, your comment has caused me to think more deeply about "my own" idea. If I were to re-write the post, it would be affected - and no doubt improved - by your comments.

The key to a successful committee is that they work together in a non-political way and respect all ideas. Almost all committees fail to do this. Therefore, almost everything produced by a committee is rubbish. However, just because committees almost always fail does not mean that the concept is bad. ...it is just that nobody has been able to get the idea to work.

So committees and teams are like communism. A good idea in theory. ...a bad idea in practice. :-)

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