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Is Your Team Up to the Task?


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Collaboration is a never-ending challenge in my office. Many of us prefer to work alone yet we’re constantly encouraged to work together (which doesn’t seem to work). Is it wrong to be more effective working individually? How can I let my leadership know that I prefer to work by myself to develop an idea before bringing it to the team while still seeming like a team player? 

-- Anonymous

A common mantra in most organizations is that teams, especially diverse ones, lead to higher productivity and employee satisfaction. The belief that teams represent a superior way to organize all too often translates into leaders calling for teamwork in every task.  Yet, the reality is many teams -- some argue the majority of teams -- don’t perform well, which can hamper productivity. Why are individuals so often asked to be on teams?  When can people work alone yet still contribute to the organization in a productive way?  How can these issues be resolved?

Sometimes a team offers a productive way to organize work and sometimes it doesn’t.  Moreover, some teams work well and some times they don’t.  The challenge for leaders is to figure out when to use a team and how to help the team be successful.

Teams offer efficiencies in three types of situations. 

First, teams are useful when a task is physically beyond a single person. Lifting a large and heavy box is the classic example of a task where teamwork between two or more people is needed. But these kinds of tasks probably are not the norm in your organization. 

Second, teams can be useful in settings where tasks are repetitive but interdependent.  For instance, consider an auditing team. An audit is a relatively standard process, yet sometimes what an auditor discovers in one part of the review can affect the productivity of another auditor. In other words, team productivity is enhanced when individuals adjust to and help one another. Having incentives and workers monitoring each other to achieve those incentives can further boost productivity. Teamwork is valuable when coordinated efforts allow for constant and mutual adjustments. In such instances teamwork can be substantially more productive than individuals working independently.

Perhaps the most valuable kinds of teams arise from collectively formulating and solving wicked problems. Ending veteran homelessness is an extreme example of a wicked problem.  In this case, no one person has enough information and knowledge to comprehensively figure out what the problem is, let alone how to solve it. Teams, if they function well, can bring together individuals with diverse information, knowledge and motivations to collaboratively and comprehensively formulate as well as solve the problem in ways that individuals simply can’t accomplish on their own.

Just because a situation calls for teamwork doesn’t mean that a team automatically will be successful.  Randomly throwing people together and asking them to work as a group is recipe for failure, if not disaster. For teams to work well, they need to be trained in and follow proven processes appropriate for the task. Collaborative Structured Inquiry, for instance, is a process taught at Brookings Executive Education for tackling complex enterprise problems. This approach can help a team build trust, develop understanding, and comprehensively formulate and solve enterprise problems. Other methods, like Six Sigma, are appropriate for other tasks. Yet few teams are trained to use such processes.

Even if a leader correctly determines that a task is best tackled by a team and then trains the members in an appropriate process for coordination and collaboration, one more thing is needed for the group to be productive. The team members must like working with others. The fact is some people don’t like to work in a team setting. This doesn’t make them bad workers. But, just like in basketball, if a star player does not enjoy collaborating with others then the team is unlikely to win a championship. 

One option is to restructure the task so that teamwork is not needed. Of course, if the task is best suited for teamwork then reconfiguring the tasks so they can be performed individually structurally locks in low performance—a choice that few leaders would want to make. Another option is to help the person who prefers to work alone find a position, perhaps in another organization, where the tasks better match the worker’s capability. Otherwise unhappiness and low productivity could impair both the worker and the organization.

In sum, three questions need to be addressed.  Have the tasks been designed for the greatest productivity?  If so, and a team approach is best, have the team members been trained in an appropriate process for cooperation and collaboration?  Finally, does teamwork offer the best match for you or will some other job be a better match?

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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