“Soloist are inspiring in Opera and perhaps even in small entrepreneurial ventures, but there is no place for them in large corporations.” – Norm Augustine
Teamwork Word Map (Creative Commons https://www.epictop10.com/)
In Brooks’ book, ‘The Mythical Man-Month’ he makes many wise observations about teams working on large, complex systems. Once of the key observations he makes is the paradox that assigning more people to a task to speed things will typically result in slowing things down. This phenomenon arises from two factors. First, there is a steep learning curve for new workers. Those new workers could take many months to become productive and they invariable end up distracting the core team. Second, communication becomes far more challenging with a greater number of workers. Communication nodes expand by the following formula:
n(n-1)/2 (where ‘n’ is the number of people in a team):
Consequently, a team of six has 15 times more communication nodes than a team of two. A reaction to this challenge is to pursue ‘small, self-organising, high performing teams’, better use of cooperative software systems, and use agile methods to effectively compartmentalise tasks. Despite these initiatives, large complex projects will invariably require large complex multi-disciplinary teams that often have disparate cultures, are geographically dispersed, and sometimes have widely varying goals and objectives. Whilst agile methods and systems help alleviate some of these challenges, collaboration is key to value delivery.
All managers wish to have the ‘A-team’ under their control. The evidence shows that 80 percent of the work is often done by the 20 percent of top-performers. Likewise, it is often the bottom 20 percent of workers that create 80 percent of the problems (especially from a human resource perspective). A highly skilled team though could be a Faustian Bargain, as illustrated by Gratton and Erickson:
Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly educated specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done. To put it another way, the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success. Members of complex teams are less likely—absent other influences—to share knowledge freely, to learn from one another, to shift workloads flexibly to break up unexpected bottlenecks, to help one another complete jobs and meet deadlines, and to share resources—in other words, to collaborate.
The authors explore how teams are far more likely to disintegrate into conflict where there is a greater proportion of experts. This needs to be carefully managed. Experts are often essential, but they should not be allowed to destroy value in an organisation.
Tips for Driving Collaboration in Teams
In our previous blog on intra-organisation collaboration https://collaborativecontracting.com.au/2021/02/06/intra-organisational-collaboration/ we explored the themes for creating an internal collaborative culture through:
- championing collaborative leaders,
- creating and reinforcing a shared vision, and
- connecting with the front lines and breaking down organisational barriers
As we have stated many times in out blogs, leadership commitment is essential; “at the most basic level, a team’s success or failure at collaborating reflects the philosophy of top executives in the organization.” Developing these themes further, Gino recommends managers:
- Focus on relationships,
- Create connections, and
- Teach People to Listen, Not Talk.
As stated by Peter Drukker “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Creating a collaborative culture is essential to realise our vision. As leaders, we need to make sure the culture is complementary to our strategy. This involves the recruiting function, remuneration and reward structures, and the general way of ‘doing business’ in an organisation. Employee engagement is essential here from two perspectives. First, leaders need continual feedback on how the culture is tracking (which will often vary between business units and teams); and second, leaders get the opportunity to shape the culture within the organisation by being engaged.
Conflicts, disputes, and misaligned goals provide ample opportunity to erode value between organisations, and the same applied within organisations. For the larger and more complex projects, we need to recognise that small, high performing, self-organising teams are mainly effective if their tasks can be compartmentalised. Large teams are often required for such complex projects and this means we need a collaborative culture and appropriate support systems to achieve common goals. High performing individuals are needed in such endeavours but beware of prima-donnas who cannot collaborate. Where you find a high performing person or team that is effective in collaborating then make sure you promote and retain such skills and do whatever you can to ‘contaminate’ the rest of your organisation with such attributes.
 F. Brooks, “The Mythical Man-month – Essays on Software Engineering” (1974).
 Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams” Harvard Business Review (November 2007)
 Francesca Gino “Six new tools for training people to work together better” Harvard Business Review (December 2019)
 Rob Cross, Mike Benson, Jack Kostal, and RJ Milnor “Collaboration Overload Is Sinking Productivity” Harvard Business Review, (September 2021).