Leland Teschler's Editorial: Teamwork is Overrated

July 31, 2009
The chatter is rising about what it will take to lift us out of the current economic malaise, and innovative new products are usually part of the prescription.

The chatter is rising about what it will take to lift us out of the current economic malaise, and innovative new products are usually part of the prescription. But we may need a change in corporate mindset before we can greatly boost our output of creative products.

The problem: Development teams are often an obstacle to creativity rather than a vehicle for truly elegant solutions. Particularly for large efforts, the evidence is that many team members work at cross purposes. That's why throwing more people at a project frequently slows it down rather than speeds its completion.

Authors Jonathan Littman, who has worked with the Ideo industrial design house, and Marc Hershon, a branding expert, recently pointed out the teamwork fallacy in a book with the tongue-in-cheek title of I Hate People. They point out that even a century ago, researchers found individual productivity declines as teams expand.

Proof came from an experiment with a tug-of-war rope competition such as you might find at a family reunion. A strain gage measured the effort put out by individuals and by groups pulling on the rope. It turned out that the average person in a group of eight yanked only half as hard as someone working alone. In groups of three, individual output dropped by 20%.

The same thing happens among elite women rowers. Eight rowers have been shown to row less enthusiastically than the same rowers individually.

The situation is probably worse in large companies, say psychologists, because many employees are there not specifically to work, but because they like to interact with others. Their focus on chatting slows down those who are trying to get a job done.

And history shows many of the most game-changing products come from the minds of just a few high performers. There is a body of scientific work that has found teams often distract achievers from work and tasks. One study at the University of Calgary, for example, involved people working at a computer alone or with a partner in full view. The sight of someone else working slowed the progress of subjects in this experiment. Things sped up when the other person left.

Merely thinking in terms of individual effort seems to yield innovative ideas, or at least more so than thinking about teamwork does. That was the conclusion of researchers at Cornell and the Hass School of Business who divided business school students into two groups, one answering questions that encouraged individualistic thinking, the other exposed to queries that promoted group-like and collectivistic behavior. The idea was to prime the students to think either distinctively or as a group.

Interestingly enough, groups primed to be more communal were less innovative in coming up with novel ideas for a business challenge. The researchers’ conclusions: When creativity is what you want, individualism trumps teamwork. Most teams are likely get the majority of their ideas from what already exists. But top design firms, say Littman and Hershon, find inspiration in tangential concepts. Designers of baby carriages, for example, are more likely to draw insights from sports cars or skateboards than from other baby carriages.

Unfortunately, most of these findings seem to be lost on upper management. Four decades ago, Fortune magazine found that managers ranked teamwork tenth on the list of most valued qualities in employees. In the 2005 follow-up survey, teamwork was number one.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

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