The Most Important Work Of All, Teamwork

November 2017

Teamwork has been defined “as a cooperative process that allows ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results.”1   It is a relatively safe assumption to make that the majority of business professionals have been a part of a team at some point in their career, and if not professionally at least at some point in their life.  Even with that being the case, have the majority of “ordinary” business professionals been catapulted into the “extraordinary” category through the vehicle of teamwork?  The answer to that question may be difficult for most to answer with a sense of certainty, however when asked how the team dynamic was for a particular project or assignment, one can more often than not quickly recall the answer with conviction. Business professionals who have been working with different teams, companies, and on projects for several decades may not always be able to remember the exact specifics of every assignment, but invariably will be able to categorize the effectiveness of a particular team they worked on.  This is so often true because both a highly functioning team and a group of people who are only a “team” because they are labeled as such are both unforgettable.  Whether it be that you can remember the excitement of collaboratively learning and working together or conversely the constant underlying dread from tension at every turn, team dynamics leave a lasting impression as they really are one of the largest deciding factors when it comes to succeeding or failing.   

In the business world we live in today, there is undeniably a heavy and growing focus on the importance of teamwork.  This focus has even led to academic institutions over the past few decades more formally incorporating aspects of “real life” teamwork into their curriculums in an attempt to train students for what is to come after graduation.  An example of this can be seen in the well-known publication Successful teamwork: A case study conducted at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia.  “The aim was to have students experience project management issues that occur when dealing with ‘real’ clients in ‘real’ projects and was heavily focused on teamwork and problem solving.”2   This study examined how well the two teams involved performed through a comparison of certain key factors identified.  In short summary, the results undoubtedly showed that the following attributes “…played an important role in determining the success of these teams”: 1) commitment to team success and shared goals 2) interdependence 3) interpersonal skills 4) open communication and positive feedback 5) appropriate team composition and 6) commitment to team processes, leadership & accountability.3   If each of the 82 students involved in just this particular study shared, through actions or words, even one pearl of wisdom gained with a colleague at their first job, just think of the ripple effect it could have.  The knowledge of 82 could turn into 164, then to 328, then to 656, and so on and so forth.

So with a growing amount of attention and literature available surrounding successful team dynamics, why is a true sense of teamwork still so hard to consistently attain and even conceptually grasp for some?  It is only natural that an individual focus on their individual successes and continual climb through the ranks of the corporate ladder, as this is something that is compulsory as part of self-preservation.  With that being said, how can this all too real fact find a true sense of alignment within a team setting?   As we have all heard so many times before “there is no I in team,” but is this really true?   Maybe this is where the confusion lies, as being a true team player does not demand or require completely giving up the “I.” Rather, being a true team player is an exercise in balance.  An individual needs to take ownership of their particular area of responsibility and stand up for that area to ensure that it is appropriately addressed, while  keeping their best interest in the back of their mind; this is the “I” so to speak.  Now, let us add one of the most crucial and fundamental components of teamwork into the mix, namely that an individual’s successes and failures really become one and the same as the entire team in terms of the big picture.  When a team is successful and the project or assignment has a favorable outcome, the team and the client (when there is one) win.  When the team and the client win, the individual wins.  “Team members must be flexible enough to adapt to cooperative working environments where goals are achieved through collaboration and social interdependence rather than individualized, competitive goals.”4   It is not required of someone to totally give up their “I” or sense of individuality in order to be a true team player.  Rather your “I” needs to be a singularly strong entity that has just enough flexibility to bend as per the needs of the team, but never break.  What makes a group of people into a team on the most basic level is that each and every person’s “I” that could stand on its own, is rather pointed and harmoniously moving in the same direction to more easily forge and pave the pathway to reaching the end goal.  Now when there are individuals whose “I” are pointed in the opposite direction of the rest of the team or just not doing their part, it can not only create issues for that person but it also creates resistance and more work for everyone else involved. These dynamics are complex, multifaceted, and clearly more difficult to grasp for some than others.  But why is that the case, why do some people and teams just seem to get it and others continually struggle?

When thinking back on all of the times you have been on a team and experienced a true sense of synergy that can at times manifest itself or make itself known in just a feeling or a sense of “clicking,” it makes you wonder, was it totally random?  Did that particular group of people just so happen to get along personally and therefore work well together?  A similar train of thought prompted Alex “Sandy” Pentland to investigate and write a series of blog posts for the Harvard Business Review Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams.5   He so accurately describes the feeling that so many of us have felt as a result of experiencing being a member of a team that is firing on all cylinders.  His experience with this “…lightning-in-a-bottle stuff that you just embrace when you’re lucky enough to come across it” was so palpable that he was motivated to find a way to document this real, observable, measureable thing to better understand good teamwork as a hard science.6   He led a team at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory that used wearable electronic sensors called sociometric badges to do just that.  When worn, these badges have the ability to capture how people communicate in real time and allow for the characteristics that are present in great teams to be described mathematically.7    In short summary, the data collected revealed that great teams: 1) communicate frequently 2) talk and listen in equal measure, equally among members 3) engage in frequent informal communication and 4) explore for ideas and information outside the group.8  

The most notable point surrounding his findings were that none of the above listed factors that play a role in making a team successful mention or make reference to the substance of a team’s communication.9   The “…badges only capture how people communicate – tone of voice, gesticulation, how one faces others in the group, and how much people talk and listen.”10   This was intentional and grounded in a hunch that proved accurate: the how is more important than the what.  “How we communicate turns out to be the most important predictor of team success, and as important as all other factors combined, including intelligence, personality, skill, and content of discussions.  The old adage that it’s not what you say, but how you say it, turns out to be mathematically correct.”11  The powers of adjusting group behavior based on the data the badges found, have not only proved useful but also documented an improvement in teamwork when put to the test.12   Viewing teamwork as more of a concrete measurable area is an exciting prospect which will inevitably have more of a tangible impact on certain industries than others. 

Teamwork is especially crucial in the healthcare IT consulting realm due to the fact that it has become the norm to have a diverse group of team members involved in projects or implementations: FTEs from different departments of the client organization, a project manager from consulting firm A, application team leads from consulting firm B, analysts that are independent 1099s, and representatives from the vendor just to name a few of the most common players involved.  There seems to be a misconception that working with a team that is comprised of a diverse group of members who work for different companies is just something that is by nature difficult to do.  Buying into this misconception or viewpoint that the melding together process is intrinsically much more complex when dealing with a diverse group of people can actually create a sense of dysfunction by anticipating that problems are on the horizon.  When you are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, you unknowingly can be contributing to it doing so.  The prospect of working on a team where the members are diverse actually is a very exciting prospect and should be an opportunity that is celebrated.  A blended team requires continual reinforcement of a centralized view of teamwork that comes from the top, often the project manager when there is one.  Reinforcing this can require a bit more creative and out of the box thinking as the culture or view of teamwork very often is different in each and every company; specifically this can translate to each team member on a blended team starting off on different footing.  This is nothing more than a fact that needs to be recognized, acknowledged, and properly planned for at the outset of an engagement.  To be clear this fact does not equate to an inherently difficult situation being present every time a blended team is put together.  What is most important is that the groundwork for the team dynamic is clearly laid out from day one and reinforced daily through a variety of different mechanisms, regardless of the members that make up the group. 

It is the responsibility of all industry professionals, including both team leaders and members, to both 1) stay up to date on the trends and research surrounding teamwork and 2) not let preconceived notions or less than optimal past experiences overshadow what you have learned and want to put into practice.  As previously mentioned, finding optimal stride in the team environment is a balancing act.  But to take that a step further, it is one that requires consistent intention.  The degree of functionality or dysfunctionality found in a team is not something that should be left to chance, rather it should be approached with a sense of structure, flexibility, and accountability.  Arming yourself with a solid knowledge base surrounding optimal team dynamics from either research and/or previous experience is typically not enough by itself to make someone a true team player.  Having the necessary knowledge is of no help until it is put into practice through daily use and consistent sharing, only then to become the new normal.  Recognition and reinforcement of the equation that matters most is crucial for all of us:

Requisite Knowledge + Continual Action = True Team Player.

Think about it this way, the few minutes out of your week that you spend on the continual action part, may very well be a prudent place to invest your time.  It may result in an extremely favorable ROI.  If you never try, you will never know. 

 

About The Author: Brittany Frazza has served as highly qualified consultant for HealthNET Systems Consulting, Inc. and is currently in charge of Marketing and Strategic Innovation for HealthNET.  She has a Masters in the Science of Jurisprudence in Health Law from Seton Hall University School of Law and 5 years of experience in Healthcare IT.

Sources

1Scarnati, J. T. (2001). On becoming a team player. Team Performance Management: An International Journal, 7(1/2), 5-10. (as cited in http://www.unice.fr/crookall-cours/teams/docs/team%20Successful%20teamwork.pdf)

2http://www.unice.fr/crookall-cours/teams/docs/team%20Successful%20teamwork.pdf

3Ibid.

4Luca, J., & Tarricone, P. (2001). Does emotional intelligence affect successful teamwork? Proceedings of the 18th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education at the ASCILITE, p. 367 – 376, Melbourne: University of Melbourne. (as cited in http://www.unice.fr/crookall-cours/teams/docs/team%20Successful%20teamwork.pdf)

5https://hbr.org/2012/03/the-new-science-of-building-gr

6Ibid.

7Ibid.

8Ibid.

9Ibid.

10Ibid.

11Ibid.

12Ibid.