No Teamwork? Or Is There Is No Work for Teams?

A common refrain in the business world is that “we need more teamwork.” I am not so sure. Sports analogies are probably the most common source of metaphors in the business language. Think about it: he struck out, do we have our bases covered, it’s a whole new ball game, that came out of left field, you’re not even in the ballpark, keep your eye on the ball, he hit that out of the park.  The list goes on and on and that’s just one sport.

Photo Credit: boltron- via Compfight cc
Photo Credit:boltron

So why isn’t there more teamwork at work? With all the exhortation and sports analogies, what’s the problem? The short answer is that, in many cases, there is no work for teams. The work itself isn’t structured in a way that it would benefit from cooperative effort. For example, there is little or no interdependence among the people involved with regard to the task itself. There is no obvious division of labor in which different specializations can contribute to group success. Most work environments are not structured like team sports despite the rhetoric about teamwork.

Managers who use the rhetoric of teamwork tend to focus on incentives or on training people to be more “supportive” of each other. These efforts may be important for other reasons, but they don’t magically produce work that is optimally structured for teams. We tend to ignore the most obvious factor – the structure and demands of the work itself. There is an entire body of social psychological research about cooperation, task interdependence, goal interdependence, and task design which can be productively applied to the business setting.

An easy way to get started is to think of the work as a game – maybe a serious game, but a game nonetheless. What “game” is being played? What are the rules? What is the order of play? What strategies do the “players” use to play the game? What parts of the game can actually be played productively by a team and what parts are better played by individuals?

If the work resembles a singles tennis match, with individuals trying to outperform each other (a competitive sales game, for example), the work is probably not for teams. If the work resembles something like a basketball game and the work is organized to leverage different specializations, division of labor, transfer of responsibility among “players,” process efficiency, and shared rewards, then maybe you have work for a team (a complex interdisciplinary project, for example). If so, then it is worth focusing some effort on the skills of working as a team.

Do some game analysis first and see if you actually have work for a team. If the work doesn’t really require teamwork, stop trying to force fit teamwork into it. People can still be expected to be polite and supportive whether there is teamwork or not. If the work does require teamwork, then determine what kind of teamwork is actually required and figure out how to change your group process and resource allocation to match those requirements in ways that will make the group into a more productive team.

2 responses to “No Teamwork? Or Is There Is No Work for Teams?”

  1. Great observation Giles. It can get very tiring to hear all the praise for “teamwork” but little support for it. Sometimes though, it’s not just not possible to structure the work well for teams. Think about the old saying, “A camel is a horse that was designed by a committee”. In sports, teams practice predictable events in order to prepare a coordinated response. In the same way, I feel jobs that jobs that are repeatable (think operational processes) are better candiates for teamwork than jobs focused around innovation, design, and creativity. They allow team members to practice their task which them leads to the ability to improve upon it. What do you think?

    • I agree that it is difficult and maybe unwise to try to structure some kinds of tasks for teams. In the language of task analysis, some tasks are “unitary” and some are “divisible.” As an extreme example, if we both wanted to read the same book, it wouldn’t be useful for me to read every other page to myself and have you do the same. The task is “unitary.” I also agree that teams work better with practice and therefore if the task can be repeated the team can get better at it. I suspect that even teams focused on innovation could practice and get better if they had multiple opportunities. Creative teams at ad agencies or the writers for a show like SNL would be examples. What you have highlighted is what Teague Hopkins (see the page on my website about my Advisory Board) calls “at-bats.” One of the reasons games (and perhaps particularly well-designed online video games) are so popular is that the learning environment has been optimized so you can get a lot of “at-bats” quickly and therefore learn faster. As Teague likes to say, “the only sustainable competitive advantage in a world of information is learning faster than the competition.”