What is Teamwork?

There has been much talk of teamwork in business and therefore in business schools,  but what is it?

I think most people get a warm and fuzzy feeling when they hear the word "Teamwork". (Although there are others who get stomach ulcers from anxiety.) But teamwork is one of those words that doesn't mean anything by itself because everyone imagines it differently. So here are a couple examples of teams:

- With Navy Seals having been in the news lately, we've heard about the part of their training regimen where the platoon 'adopts' a telephone pole and must carry it with them where ever they go. This is a task that is impossible to accomplish unless each member of the team pulls his weight.

- On a manufacturing line, each person has a specific task to perform that builds on the work of each previous person. The product is not complete until each person has contributed his or her role that day. If some task was missed or not performed well, the unit will be left flawed and will need to be reworked.

- In basketball teamwork often means not taking every shot you get, but passing the ball on to someone who may have a better chance. Ball hogs run up their own stats, but drag down their teams. Sometimes the most effective players are those who draw defenders away from the guy who actually scores.

- In a modern industrial corporation the company is made up of many functional units which almost never interact with each other - Accounting, IT, Marketing, R&D, Finance, Shipping etc - plus some unit that does the actual work of providing a service or building a product. Enticing them to all work together as a team is very hard.

- In building the pyramids, there were kings, engineers, taskmasters and slaves. The org chart was probably shaped pretty much like a pyramid itself, with all of the rewards accruing to those at the top.

- In your particular functional group, you probably have a few people who perform more or less the same types of tasks, with a manager there to evaluate your individual performance. You probably call it a team.

But what characterizes team work?

In the Seals example, it's a shared fate and everyone contributing. In the manufacturing example, it's divvying up the work into manageable pieces. In the basketball example, its making personal sacrifices for the good of the team.

But the other three show very different definitions of teamwork. The industrial model is based on specialization, just like the manufacturing line, but any link to the ultimate goal is hard to see. In the pyramid example, most of the people on the team don't gain anything by being on the team. In the functional group, it looks more like a random collection of individuals who happen to share similar backgrounds.

So here's the takeaway: there are some things you just cannot accomplish without a team. And being a part of a good team feels really good. But when forming a team, you have to make sure everyone understands:

  • What the ultimate goal is
  • What the team should look like
  • How each person is expected to contribute
  • How their contribution will be judged
  • And how the rewards will be divided.

In my opinion, if you don't have those, you don't have a team. You might have a gang, a group or an assemblage. But if you need a team, build a team.

Unfortunately, as are most of the things in life worth doing, that's easy to say but hard to do.