Teamwork has become the safe and default way of working in organizations. In fact most of us have a long-lasting romance with teams. Yet managers rarely stop and question the assumptions behind team mania. Like breathing, we just do it. Is teamwork still a safe bet or is it last century?
The benefits of teams
Research notes the following benefits of teams:
1. It is considered an easy and structured way to manage many people. In a classic hierarchy we have a span-of-control that provides the boundaries for typical team sizes (3-12). This way each team can have a team leader or manager, who then reports to a manager, who again has a number of teams reporting into him or her, and so forth.
2. Teams provide a solid foundation for "thinking", problem solving, idea generation and innovation, insofar that two heads, or more, are better than one head when synergy may be created.
3. Teams (of certain sizes) have easier access to funding and budgets and thrive on the advantages of economies of scale. They are likely to "pull off" what individuals cannot.
4. Teams fulfill a fundamental human need for belonging. All cultures in human history form groups in one way or another and most people have a strong need for both social/emotional and cognitive/competence based bonding. In a work-related environment that may be partially fulfilled by belonging to an organization and benefit from its reputation, and the belonging is often even stronger when one is part of a sub-team.
5. A team can be a lot of fun to work in, long term friends are found and sometimes the team is almost like an extension of your family.
Drawbacks to teams
There is also the view that teams do often not perform better than the sum of the individuals. All teams have the potential to perform well, but in many cases they under-perform. This can be for many reasons, or the enabling conditions are not in place, such as:
a) teams not being managed well (especially a problem for highly diverse teams);
b) non-optimal composition of the team;
c) no compelling direction and lack of empowerment;
d) personal conflicts or conflicts vis-ï¿½-vis decision making processes and who does what;
e) bad or inappropriate structure and size;
f) the teams lacks a supportive context from its organization.
Does your team not suffer from at least one of these? Think, for example, of IT resources and tools you are using in your daily work. How many of these tools are really geared specifically towards working with your team? How well are you, as a manager, trained to manage a diverse group of different individuals? Do members in your team have the ability to challenge each other, speak up and share information?
It should also be noted that companies often test and interview specifically to ensure a potential employee "fits" and that he/she is not too different. There is some evidence that teams foster "groupthink" and compliance, in which case teams fail in their decision-making and provide incomplete alternatives or information search.
The dream team of the future
So what is the dream team of the future? Teamwork does not suit everybody and it can lead to social ostracism end exclusion, which can have dire consequences for the person(s) involved. But then again, how many people can really choose to work outside a team? Organizations are often wedded to a teamwork ideology. It is just the way things are done and how we are socially trained to think.
However, in the case of teamwork there are trends in society that may change the way we think about it. The most important development is the Internet and its applications. The saying "two heads are better than one" assumes that heads (people) hold information. Of course they do, but in today's wired world it is fair to conclude that a big part of the information we use in our daily work has in fact relocated from heads to nets. It is to be found either online by using search engines, or via networks that people are more or less loosely connected to (such as Facebook, Wikipedia or LinkedIn).
Thus, our job is increasingly a matter of finding, transforming and (critically) processing information that is more or less readily available "at your fingertips". This is often done most effectively by individuals, whereas the sensemaking and discussions of possible implications and prioritization can best be done in teams.
The new generations (i.e. millennium kids or project generation) like to form their own teams, networks, Facebook groups, hang-out meetings or whatever it takes. They need freedom and support for different ways of working. They need inspiration and guidance instead of commands and restrictions. Organizations therefore need to support occasions where informal "teams" (or dyads) are created naturally based on interests and personality.
Communities of practice are a good example of contemporary teams. These are groups of people (inside or across organizations) who share a concern or a passion for something they do (e.g. specific software or marketing techniques) and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.
These communities of practices do not have to be concerned with Siebel, MindMap, gaming, iPads or other technologies. They can also deal with business or societal issues that occupy the minds of many young people today, for example social responsibility, environment or ecology.
So our challenge will be to modernize team work and processes, and to find the right balance between established teams inside an organization and fluid open collaborative teams spanning across organizations, disciplines and boundaries.