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Monday, January 31, 2011

Assessing Teamwork

Teamwork? Hah!
Process? What process?
Collaboration? Show me.
This is not cynical. I do not dismiss the sincere cooperative efforts of countless people who work together in pursuit of common interests. Nor do I demean the behavior and motives of those who labor to lead, to coordinate their fellows and their staffers to make good things happen.
I’m just viewing the results, and commenting as a favorably disposed but objectively depressed observer of the scene. Things just don’t go well, mostly, in the collaborative activity of most of our organizations.
Experts in organizational behavior suggest sitting in the cafeteria or break room and just listening to the talk, if you want to know how well an organization is doing – or how it is likely to do. Or just stroll through the workplace with your eyes and ears open.
The chatter and the body language will tell you what’s going on. Are they complaining about unfair bosses, lazy co-workers, rude customers? Or does the conversation reflect pride, progress, engagement? Or do they never mention the work at all? Are people busy, vigorous, engaged? Or is there lethargy, resentment?
We often misunderstand the true nature of teamwork, organizational process and group collaboration. We refer to them as if they actually exist, in the sense of having independent existence. They don’t.
Think of this: Take a typical organization, of any size or process or project. Remove the people who now occupy and operate it. Immediately replace them with other people of equal background, training and talent. There will be an abrupt and radical change in what happens and what is produced. It's not the structure or the process. It's the people.
So we ought to blow up our easy acceptance of “teamwork” as it is commonly understood. Discard it. Trash it.
Why? Because it is a misleading and dangerous fiction. Teamwork, process and collaboration are effects of human activity, which itself arises from individual intent. People don’t merge their distinct individualities into some collective new superior creature when they become part of a group. They simply add a mutual dependency with other people in the interest of some common intent.
The common intent is not by itself the determinant of whether the new group succeeds or not. The actual individual efforts, driven and accumulated by the common intent, produce the outcome. If the intent inspires committed effort, success is possible. If a leader can ignite that inspiration, things happen.
So that’s why the participants’ unguarded conversation is a quick indicator of group strength. The talk tells you what people are thinking. Thinking is the engine of action.
Then the ultimate, unmistakable producer of group success is, of course, what the participants do. And THAT is where the manager’s attention must be focused.

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