Teamwork - What Doesn't Work

>> Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I talked about collaboration yesterday, specifically the odd one my husband and I have regarding writing (which is different than the strange collaborations we have for everything else).

Teamwork is somewhat related to the topic of partnerships, only the dynamics tend to be much more complex. Now, I'm not going to tell you the right teams or what is always good or always bad. However, I can tell you some of my experiences and what I think helps (and doesn't help) make a good team. For those of you who do a lot of interactive and team work, I expect I won't be telling you anything new.

One thing about working for the government, I have seen a lot of the features that DON'T make for a good team - though they are not restricted to government and contractor organizations (and, yes, I have seen teams that work here, too):

Too many chiefs, not enough Indians. There are many organizations out there where the management structure dwarfs the working segment. It's a recipe for waste, inertia, and making poor decisions.
  • In such an environment, decisions are often amorphous and preliminary much longer than they should be because it's under constant review - middle management has nothing else to do so they do meetings, reviews, reevaluations.
  • Poor decisions stay in place far longer than they should because no one can reach concensus on the alternatives or, because those "making the decisions" don't really understand it so they're afraid to change it.
  • Decisions are made more on the slickness of the presentation rather than because it makes sense because someone who isn't knowledgable is most influenced by good advertising.
  • Meanwhile, while the management isn't accomplishing even what they are supposed to be providing (meaningful direction), they are sucking away resources (salaries), leaving the small cadre of real workers not only overworked, but often performing more work than necessary because they have to keep redoing things to try to get a reasonable product. That, of course, also reduces feedback so that management doesn't find out what's wrong until far too late.
No chiefs at all. While one can make an argument that there are teams that can be successful using pure consensus, but my experience says that this is almost always (a) a very small team, (b) a loosely integrated final product, and (c) usually has someone tacitly if not overtly leading it. However, I feel that, under most circumstances, leaderlessness leads to inefficiency. Independent work tends to be limited. Nothing can be accomplished except in the meeting because consensus is always required. (And we all know how productive meetings are without leadership). But, more than that, it's often hard to get a group to reach a definitive answer, use their time effectively. Or, equally challenging, the need for total agreement can dissuade dissension as people don't want to be the one holding everyone back - and decisions get made on what people think everyone else wants to do rather than what they ought to do.

Not enough experts. Too many folks with not enough actual expertise makes a meeting an exercise in action items with everyone going to "find out." If people don't have the understanding and knowledge to resolve the situation when decisions are to be made, decisions won't be made. If a team requires expertise outside (and doesn't have it IN the team), the team is poorly designed.

Too many experts. Expertise is great and definitely something to include in a team, but if everyone's an expert (particularly if you have experts in the same field), there is a definite risk of egos getting in the way of solutions. Experts can compete (and torpedo each other), can get distracted by by inconsequential trivialities instead of addressing the whole problem. Experts are important, but an effective team usually needs people to (a) provide a fresh perspective and (b) to put the story all together find the "answer".

Not enough (or ineffective) communication. Teams cannot work effectively in isolation. Anything that blocks communication, blocks progress, leads to misunderstandings, tasks or considerations falling through the cracks, doing work more than once, or pieces that work fine independently but not together. And that anything can be distance, poor communication skills, unnecessary bureaucracy, language, unit systems, personality, technology, whatever.

Too much communication. If everyone's statusing, meeting, discussing, brainstorming, caucusing, reviewing, reporting, etc., no one's doing anything. If it takes longer to explain what you did than to do it (to everyone you need to explain it to), you're not exactly working efficiently.

Tomorrow, the kind of things I think make a team effective...


  • The Mother

    It's very hard for a group of scientists to work together as an effective team. It means appointing a leader and then subjugating one's own ego for the good of the whole.

    Probably why medicine still doesn't have an effective lobby.

  • Patricia Rockwell

    Having taught group communication courses many times, I can support your observations. Much of what you discuss is incorporated in Irving Janis' theory of Groupthink. He notes (as do you) that some of the worst groupthink occurs in government communication.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I probably should read books on this subject, but I don't. I'm terrible about reading any nonfiction I don't have to.

    Nice to know someone more expert agrees, though.

    The Mother, my experience has been different. I've found that, when I run into an expert whose ego gets in the way, they really aren't as expert as I thought. They don't like to be challenged because they don't know as much as they want everyone to think they do.

  • gate valves

    what great cat pictures.. :)

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