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The Secret to Team Collaboration: Individuality

Let those on your team do their own thing. A new book supports this claim, as does a quote from Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer.
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"We expect everyone here to be team players." 

Most of us have had a boss who preached teamwork. Some bosses even like to put up posters with slogans like there is no "I" in team.

Teamwork is essential to organizational success but too much teamwork can be deadly. This is the point that Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, argues in an essay for the The New York Times. She points out the drawbacks of too much teaming. "Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption," she writes.

Further, Cain explains that creative types are by nature introverts but "extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas [and] see themselves as independent and individualistic." Cain also quotes from the memoir of Steve "Woz" Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer and inventor of the very first Apple computer, who advises fellow engineers and inventors to "work alone… not on a committee. Not on a team."

The challenge for leaders is to balance individual needs with team directives. To do so they must avoid collectivism and facilitate collaboration. Collectivism leads to "group think," which, as Susan Cain argues, is the bête noir of teamwork; collaboration leads to innovation. Collectivists unite around a single purpose, which is fine, but ignore alternate paths to achieve that purpose. Collaborators are similarly focused on purpose but they arrive at their goals by incorporating variable points of view. In short, collectivists, like the Bolsheviks of Leninist Russia, value ideology over results. Collaborators are pragmatists who build upon the ideas of many in order to get things done.

The secret to effective collaboration is individuality. You want everyone on the team to feel free to contribute ideas to a project as a means of instilling ownership and therefore increase engagement.  That does not mean that every idea that anyone says goes but it does mean people can contribute their brains as well as their brawn.

Here are four steps to foster true collaboration through each contributor:

1. Affirm the purpose. The central organizing principle of a project is the why. It is up to managers to let people know how what the team is doing contributes to organizational success.

2. Encourage individualism. A secret to effective collaboration is individual contributions. When people think alike they shut out alternate viewpoints. True collaboration weighs the individual ideas and balances them with what the project needs. In short, teammates build upon the contributions of others to achieve their team goals.

3. Focus on team. Few things will get done without individuals pulling together. The managers can reinforce collaboration by making it known that individuals must coordinate with each other as well as cooperate. Sometimes this means that people will pitch in to help a teammate finish a task when their own work is finished.

4. Reflect, together. There is one other valuable ingredient to effective collaboration: reflection. The perception may be that reflection is a solo endeavor, but many teams have found it valuable to employ in group settings. Managers can stimulate the thinking process by posing a key question for the group to reflect upon in silence and then discuss openly. Open-ended questions that focus on the how and the why of process rather than purpose are effective. The purpose—where the team is headed—has been established; the process—how we do things—can very often be improved.

Teamwork is essential to getting things done and to do it effectively managers need to draw upon the talents of individuals who have a stake in the outcome. There may be no "I" in team, but as Michael Jordan, whose singular play powered the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles, used to say, "But there is in win!"

Last updated: Jan 18, 2012

JOHN BALDONI is the president of Baldoni Consulting, an executive coaching firm. John speaks widely on leadership and has written 10 leadership books; his newest is Lead With Purpose: Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself.
@johnbaldoni




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