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Latest insights and trends in Personal Analytics, Operational Intelligence, and Workplace Productivity.

Jul 26
In Us We Trust

Teamwork is a tricky thing. While personal effectiveness alone is a difficult matter to understand, coupling people into well working teams had been always giving specialists a real headache.
What's the problem? – you may ask. If there's a work to be done then divide it among group members and get to it, instead of debating! Here comes well-known question about how long it will take to dig one water well for a well-motivated group of 10 people with shovels…

We may really be not quite aware of the range of the problem here. Note, that people are working in teams not even for ages but for millennia and efficiency was a real question of their survival in the past. We should already be expert in that, but are we?

Past time cases show how extraordinary, as well as how devastating, can be the result of team cooperation. We all know the story about small, well-motivated division of 300 Spartans that had stopped the Persian Army in spite of being completely overwhelmed by them in numbers. Not exactly winners in a strict sense, but treated as such in history, they were the team that amazes us even now.
On the opposite side there was a typical example of armies – huge organizations that should crave for a good teamwork, though they seem to desperately avoid a real one. The structure and ranks system make each function being always managed by one person, by principle of discipline forcing the others to just obey and not to contribute.

However, this one-man responsible approach may not look as such a bad idea if you look at other (in)famous example of military teamwork, which was American "Bay of Pigs Invasion" on Cuba in 1961, where CIA collective decisions had led to an epic failure of the operation. They seemed to be the worst possible choices from available ones, although they came from a team of most professional and outstanding specialists in the field and mostly included US president in their meetings.
In this case the most important reason of teamwork failure came from the very fact that the participants were so respectful, that their opinions were judged and favoured not by their concepts real value, but by person's position. Instead of forcing right solutions, participants were busy finding ideas that didn't contradict others. Honesty and expertise were buried deep under overmuch esteem.
The only positive effect of the whole operation was that it made the weaknesses of a teamwork so obvious, it triggered intense scientific research of the problem (as well as serious funds availability).

In today's world most of the work that needed common cooperation, like agriculture or industrial production, traditionally managed by simple tasks division among many workers, became automated. The importance of huge armies also decreases, as people, slowly and unevenly but gradually, start to understand that it is much better to talk before attempting to fight.
What gets important are creative tasks that require real team cooperation and positive thought exchange. How do we all respond to that? You can see it all around - if there's any problem or decision to make or even just a new thing we encounter at work, we invariably say: Let's make a meeting!
(If you are one of these persons, this decision tree can be a good hint.)

Talking seriously, there is quite a lot of practices that succeed in supporting innovation and cooperation in many offices, like rapid development cycles, user-centered design, open office layout or flat hierarchy and autonomy, to name some of them. They work so well, that they are being spread between companies and their divisions in many countries for an amazing effect they provide. But what really lies behind them and allows people to work and cooperate creatively?

Short cycle of development idea, that came up from a start-up culture, in its core bases on taking more chances on a new approach and accepting failure as a way of learning and innovation. Other practices facilitate team's internal communication and avoid organizational obstacles. These are not always easy to implement, as some companies could see trying to transfer them to other cultures as shown in Pamela Hinds research.

Surprising picture on how to make things even better comes from a Google team that research Google working teams (funny, isn't it?), trying to process and analyse all details about them and come out with recipe for perfect group that works like a dream.
Watching groups with really good teamwork quality, they found some intriguing things. First they saw that every member of such group was talking equally long on their meetings – that was a simple fact. It was not by design or some group rule or by leader's management. Participants by themselves took care not to neglect anybody. Then it was found that communication concerns a lot of private matters. Their meetings were not very well "organized" – topics changed often and moved easily from team objectives to unrelated themes. In spite of that disorder, results were amazing in terms of innovation and progress.

The values that came as the keys in these groups were: understanding, trust and safety. Closeness that developed from sharing personal matters transferred to interest and care in professional tasks. This provided environment where all opinions as well as comments could be accepted but honestly judged. What is more important, it provided conditions for 'safe failures' that facilitate learning, thought sharing and lead to creativity.

If you think about it, this recipe was always known and sometimes intuitively used. The 'Spartans team' I mentioned earlier, could be a good example of that. Close personal contact, communication and apparent lack of fear of failure were their main advantages over their enemies. But it seems that people always tend to think that there must be an easier way. Is it that hard to trust each other?


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