Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Finely tuned collective effort

As someone who is rabidly individualistic, working with other people isn't something that's hard-wired into me. For this, I've been chided by friends and family members who hold collective effort up as a sacred cow. They cannot possibly fathom why anyone would question the merits of working together.

I remember reading (probably in the Harvard Business Review) that this teamwork mindset is prevalent especially among my generation, which grew up playing team sports and doing group projects in school. Contrast this with the modus operandi of previous generations of workers, who were much more individualistic: put your nose to the grindstone, pull your weight in the organization, and let your merits stand on their own.

In this sense, I am very much a traditionalist.

But I've been through some fiery projects in school and during my consulting days working with clients. Massive requirements and short deadlines have a way of focusing the mind and forcing the casting aside of closely held ideology. I've seen teams coming together to accomplish something that was more than the sum of the parts, and seeing that in action made me more open to the idea.

Still, I maintain what I consider a healthy skepticism towards a widespread and blind allegiance to the nebulous concept of collective effort.

I acknowledge that it produces tremendous benefits as many sets of eyes and differing perspectives hammer away to solve problems, and that work can be parceled out and done in parallel, resulting in undeniable time savings. Knowledge can be shared to increase the human capital of everyone involved; it makes everyone better off by increasing the raw capability of the team so that the team's maximum output doesn't merely hold constant.

But reaping these benefits does not come automatically.

Any time you pool resources to exert greater leverage, you also put yourself at risk of exercising power in the wrong direction or of misallocating those resources so that all you're left with is a colossal heap of waste. Capital intensive industries such as auto manufacturing earn billions in profit in good times, but when crisis strikes, the cost of all that unused capacity is crippling.

I don't want to come off sounding alarmist or overly pessimistic about teamwork gone wrong. Truth be told, it rarely ends in a blazing mess. Even the most dysfunctional team is just a misconfigured engine that nonetheless manages to sputter along, misfiring occasionally, but still operational. I'd guess that this is how most haphazardly assembled teams manage to get by.

If you choose to go it alone, it's like pedaling along on a bike: you can get in and out of places, but even the car with the misfiring engine can go faster than you can. Working alone feels much more elegant and affords the independent worker more agility. This is where the continued appeal of individual effort arises from. But for most undertakings worth their salt these days? A team effort is the smart choice, just like you need a car to really enjoy all that Southern California has to offer.

But again, let's be honest. Driving a car with a misfiring engine isn't very much fun. It's nerve-wracking, and the only people amused by it are the people who are laughing at you from a safe distance.

What can you do to pull off collective effort like a finely tuned engine?

Share knowledge. This makes you better equipped for the future.

Exploit different strengths and don't strive for homogeneity. This is where differing viewpoints and other sets of eyes can really come in handy.

Implement systems of coordination and common convention to maintain coherence. It's ridiculously easy for everyone to start doing things their own way.

Know the difference between parallel and serial tasks. As tasks in this knowledge-based economy become increasingly complex, it's not as easy as painting a room and asking everyone to take one wall.

Gather the right people for what you want to do. It does you no good to get an excellent tax accountant when what you need is a good plumber. No offense to tax accountants.

Question your assumptions: do you really need a team for what you're trying to do? Do you really need a large one, or would a small one suffice? And are you prepared to put in the hard work for everyone involved to get the maximum benefit out of the experience?