Teamwork doesn't come naturally for most people.
In some ways, it's counter-intuitive. We tend to want to work in an isolation chamber, producing a report or a slideshow on our own and to advance our own motives and aspirations. When someone looks out for another person, it can be surprising at times--a shock to the system. "Are you sure you don't want to be selfish?" you might ask.
That's why it's so important to direct a team, to retrain people to avoid the "what's in it for me" line of thinking and to work together. But how do you do that effectively?
One model for how this can work is the human brain.
In case you didn't know, your mind is a super powerful computer. The synapses are all interconnected. New research on how the brain works has dispelled the myth that certain regions work alone and in isolation--say, storing memories or pondering deep concepts. That's an overly simplified understanding, because there are 100 billion neurons in there. They work together in ways we may never understand. Yet, here's what we do know.
We're always stronger together, and that applies to just about any effort in the work world or in real life. Isolation is a killer. As a leader, you can change the dynamic.
Here's an example of how this works.
I've worked with people who are incredibly analytical. You could say they are like the limbic system of the brain, the region that handles deep thought. When you sit at a coffee-table in the morning and work out exactly how in the world you will resolve a conflict or map out the sales effort for a new product launch, you're using the limbic system. Good for you! For anyone who loves to do that, has exceptional skills in that area, or has a default mode to analyze things first, it's a special skill. However, we know the limbic system is not isolated. We can't map this out in Excel quite yet, but it's reasonable to think the neurons firing in your brain benefit from the creative impulses you get from other regions and the long and short-term memory you have.
Similarly, those analytical folks could use a spark from the marketing team. It's absolutely mesmerizing to see this in action. An analytical person in a meeting talks with a product designer about the color scheme to use on a bar chart. "Did you see what Wired Magazine did in their last issue with their pie charts?" asks the designer. "What's Wired Magazine?" asks the analytical person, looking up from an Excel file at long last.
There's a spark, an idea--the limbic system benefited from a fun and creative thought from another part of the brain. (Fun fact: Brain scientists don't actually label any specific region of the brain as the idea center. It's split into parts and hard to pin down. That might explain why creative types at work "all over the place" at times.)
I've seen this happen in real time. The brainiacs meet with the bean counters, the designers meet with the outgoing sales types. Sparks fly. Teamwork happens. As a leader, it's important to link all of these connections, to encourage diversity of discussion, to push people to move out of their comfort zone. It's your job. I've said it many times before, but the best leaders know how to draw out the best skills in each individual contributor and then link the team together into a cohesive whole.
What's the alternative? Bored workers sitting alone in a cubicle farm. Missed opportunities. Failed endeavors. Sticking with the idea that certain regions of the brain are isolated from one another is not smart. Maybe there are only a few hundred thousand neurons in the brain, too. Maybe the designer can figure out the analytics somehow. Maybe the boss is better off playing Minecraft all day and leaving everyone alone.
Another option is to mix and match, to lead your team as though all of the parts are interconnected, that through your careful direction the neurons in marketing will help the neurons in accounting (and not call one another morons). There is a way to make a team function like the brain. It's called getting out of your office and connecting the dots.