People are selfish; they think in terms of win-lose, not win-win. The cost of this kind of thinking is increasingly unacceptable in a world where teamwork matters more than ever.
Today, the problems we face are sufficiently complex that it takes a great deal more collaboration than ever to yield results. For example, consider the recent oil spill in the Gulf, not to mention the ongoing crises of our time (deadly diseases, world hunger, sustainable energy, terrorism).
When we don’t work together, the results can be catastrophic. Look at the lead-up to 9-11, the poster child for what can happen if when we fail to connect the dots.
A relay race is a good metaphor for the consequences of poor teamwork. As Fast Company (“Blowing the Baton Pass,” July/August 2010) reports, in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the USA’s Darvis Patton was on the third leg of the race, running neck and neck with a runner from Trinidad when he and his relay partner, Tyson Gay, blew it:
“Patton rounded the final turn, approaching…Gay, who was picking up speed to match Patton. Patton extended the baton, Gay reached back, and the baton hit his palm. Then, somehow it fell. The team was disqualified.”
Patton and Gay were each world-class runners on their own, but the lack of coordination between them resulted in crushing defeat.
In the business realm, we saw coordination breakdown happen to JetBlue in February 2007, when “snowstorms had paralyzed New York airports, and rather than cancel flights en masse, Jet Blue loaded up its planes…and some passengers were trapped for hours.”
Why do people in organizations bicker instead of team? According to FC, it’s because we “underestimate the amount of effort needed to coordinate.” I believe it’s really more than that – we don’t underestimate it, but rather we are too busy competing with each other (individually, as teams, as departments, etc.) to recognize the overarching importance of collaboration.
This is partly because we see don’t see others as helping us. Instead we (often erroneously) see them as potential threats to be weakened or eliminated. We have blinders on and these blinders are facilitated and encouraged by a reward system in our organizations that promotes individualism rather than teamwork. (In fact, all along the way, we are taught that we must compete for scarce resources – educational slots, marriage partners, jobs, promotions, bonuses and so on.)
So we think we are hiring the best and the brightest. Polished resume, substantial accomplishments, nice interview, solid references, etc. And of course, we all have the highest expectations for them. But then even the best employees are challenged by organizational cultures where functional silos, “turf wars”, and politicking prevail. Given all of the above, why are we surprised by their failure to collaborate?
Accordingly, in an IT context, project failure has unfortunately become the norm rather than an exception. We can have individuals putting out the best widgets, but if the widgets don’t neatly fit together, aren’t synchronized for delivery on schedule and within budget, don’t meet the intent of the overall customer requirements, and don’t integrate with the rest of the enterprise—then voilá, another failure!
So what do we need to become better at teamwork?
- Realize that to survive we need to rely on each other and work together rather than bickering and infighting amongst ourselves.
- Develop a strong, shared vision and a strategy/plan to achieve it—so that we all understand the goals and are marching toward it together.
- Institute a process to ensure that the contributions of each person are coordinated— the outputs need to fit together and the outcomes need to meet the overarching objectives.
- Reward true teamwork and disincentivize people who act selfishly, i.e. not in the interest of the team and not for the sake of mission.
Teamwork has become very cliché, and we all pay lip service to it in our performance appraisals. But if we don’t put aside our competitiveness and focus on the common good soon, then we will find ourselves sinking because we refused to swim as a team.