Why Teamwork Does Not Work

by Greg Phillips

The title of this article will be a little confronting to most people. After all, isn’t ‘teamwork’ the catch cry of today? Indeed the corporate saviour? The only way forward? The method by which we will conquer all?

The problem is that most people misunderstand teamwork and most importantly don’t know how to implement and facilitate the correct use of teamwork. People working cohesively and effectively as a team can achieve outstanding results however most teams achieve only a small percentage of what is possible. Generally, it is accepted that a team is a group of people working together toward common goals or at the very least, in synergy. While this is fundamentally correct, the reality is that teams actually unwittingly sabotage growth and creativity. There are various reasons and scenarios that create this problem and there are a number of required skills in a successful team. While a single short article cannot turn your team into a creative, dynamic force, this article does address the key fundamental reason for team mediocrity.

I am not addressing the need for teamwork or how to motivate your people to have the desire to work as a team – these are different subjects. This article addresses the fact that people genuinely trying to work as an effective team often fail or at least are not as effective as they could be.

We’ve all heard the phrase; “A champion team will always beat a team of champions”. This phrase is often used in sporting circles so let’s take the example of an Australian Rules football match. A champion team works cohesively to achieve a common goal however nothing happens in the chain until an individual has success at getting the ball. With this embryo (the first possession), the team can now build on something. Without the embryo, nothing happens. When possession is lost the process starts over again with another individual effort. Of course, there are many facets to a football match, for example shepherding your team mate, however each act is first an individual act, which other team members can take advantage of and build on. For the team to be successful, each individual is continually undertaking individual judgements, decisions and acts to get the ball moving. Can you imagine how the team would perform if individuals sought the approval of other team members before they decided on a course of action?

Everyone has been on a committee or perhaps in a boardroom meeting and witnessed clash after clash with the result being failure or at best, compromise. Rarely is the best solution or idea reached. Many people make a big deal about being accommodating by accepting a compromise but a compromise is failure because by it’s very definition it is not the best idea. It must be remembered that people who are convinced against their will, still have the same opinion.

“Compromise….that’s when you give the other guy half of what is rightfully yours.”
– Sue Grafton

Why is it that clever, well-intentioned people can come together to solve problems or create ideas only to achieve a sub standard outcome?

The answer lies in one simple fact: Creativity is individual.

All ideas come from an individual mind. Minds cannot be linked. No one can develop the embryo of an idea in someone else’s mind. The idea must develop past embryonic stage to birth stage in the mind that conceived it. Only when an idea is at the stage when it can be born can it have further life breathed into it and developed to maturity. This is where teamwork can start to be used to advantage. The fact is that teamwork usually kills creativity because it is not facilitated correctly.

So how can you conduct team sessions that engender the teamwork spirit and take advantage of collective intelligence but allow the use of everyone’s powerful creative individual mind? Well, there is more than one skill involved in creative thinking however the easiest to explain in a short article is the following technique. Use this technique for your next team meeting and I guarantee you will dramatically increase the success of the session. The technique applies to any idea and could include any topic from reducing expenses to developing a name for a new product. I’ll use the example of developing a marketing strategy.

Explain the task to the team: Market research has shown that the image of the company does not appeal to our target market of 25 to 40 year olds. We need to reposition the image of the company through a cleverly designed marketing strategy. Our task today is to develop ideas to meet our objectives.

Provide as much information as necessary to define the task but do not outline any ideas or suggestions conceived prior to the meeting – in other words, ‘don’t lead the witnesses’.

Now tell everyone to separate for five minutes and work on the task individually using a notepad to record their ideas. It’s best that each person move to different parts of the room or they can go into separate rooms if necessary – the main thing is that they must be able to think quietly on their own without interruption.

After five minutes, bring everyone together again for five minutes to discuss their progress – encourage everyone to take notes. Now separate them again for another five minutes to work individually, then bring them together again for another five minutes. Continue the five minutes together/individual cycle until you feel you have enough to really get your teeth into. The minimum total time is usually thirty minutes however, this depends on the complexities of the task. Simple to do and not dramatically different from the way most team sessions are conducted however after thirty minutes of this format, I guarantee you will have many more ideas than you would in an hour of a traditional team meeting. Even more important than the number of ideas, the creativity of the ideas will be dramatically superior.

Creativity is an individual ability. Teams can kill creativity

If you have ten or more in your team you can easily measure the difference. Simply divide into two teams of five and have one team work as above and the other working traditionally ie. open team discussion. If you’d like to practice the technique, make a game of it before using it on actual company business. For example, you could have the teams think of as many names as they can for a new toothpaste or a new ‘Popstars band’. If you play this game with two or more teams you will find the teams who separate each five minutes will produce more names (usually around twice as many) and better names.

“The only unlimited source I know of is one’s imagination.”
– Greg Phillips

Organisations that get teamwork right thrive. These organisations have exciting dynamics that produces creative new ideas, solutions and economies of time and finances. It is absolutely true that ‘a champion team’ will put ‘a team of champions’ out of business however ‘a champion team’ is one that has the knowledge and skills to maximise both the team’s performance and their own individual contribution.

“In an information society, education is no mere amenity; it is the prime tool for growing people and profits.”
– John Naisbett and Patricia Aburdene, ‘Megatrends’