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Teams, by their very nature, are self-defeating—or perhaps “inherently paradoxical” is a more accurate description. Some clarification is required here. By either phrase, we mean to say: what makes teams absolutely indispensable to the forward progress and completion of a given task is also what impedes their ability to swiftly and smoothly execute and complete that task. In some rare instances, in fact, it can even lead to the premature dissolution of the team (think: The Beatles).
Perhaps this broad-sweeping statement requires some clarification as well.
Nobody will deny that a significant number of humankind’s greatest achievements were accomplished as the result of a team; the first lunar landing is probably the most oft-cited and celebrated example of teamwork. But who’s to say, other than someone who was a member of that immense team, that Kennedy’s vow to successfully land a man on the moon before the decade was over might not have proceeded more quickly and at a fraction of the cost had a single person been capable of fulfilling and executing the myriad necessary roles? Speculative, of course, so let’s restate the question conversely: imagine if the “Mona Lisa project” had required input from a designer, an illustrator, the legal department, a creative director, marketing and research, a project manager, a brand ambassador, and (God forbid!) the client. The result would have been a visually agonizing and politically correct chimera. Instead, it’s arguably the most recognizable piece of art on the planet—or the moon.
So, what makes a team invaluable? The fact that you are drawing upon the vast experience, talent, insight, opinion and intelligence of a group of people which, in the aggregate, no one person could possibly ever possess.
So what, then, makes a team inherently self-defeating? Well, the fact that the dynamics among a group of people with their own individual experiences, talents, insights, opinions and intelligence are incredibly complex for groups consisting of more than one person, and become exponentially more complex for each person added to that original group of one.
Unlike cluster computing, where dozens or even hundreds of individual computers are connected and working in tandem (but autonomously) toward performing a specific task, a team is composed of diverse individuals who, though united by a common goal, may have widely varying (and even opposing) views on how to get there. By design, their individual skills are complementary and essential for reaching this common goal, but inevitably human nature intervenes, and productivity, timelines, budgets—and sometimes quality—suffer as a result.
So how do we change this? We don’t. Human nature is immutable.
However, there are a number of tools and techniques we can employ to minimize the impact of human nature on a project so that the better part of human nature may prevail, and we can all get paid (that, too, is an immutable human desire). Some of these tools and techniques include (…and cue up the requisite numbered list, please):
It’s so obvious that it almost doesn’t warrant mentioning, but sometimes what’s obvious isn’t so obvious at all. Before embarking on a project, make sure everyone involved has a clear and thorough understanding of what the project’s mission is. Define success. Once you’ve articulated the project’s goal and defined what will make it a success, define the individual role each member is expected to fulfill to help make the project successful. If someone was brought onto the team to be a programmer, they shouldn’t be dipping their ladle into the project management saucepan.
To use an American football analogy: if the project mission is to reach the end zone, then each down is a checkpoint, and every yard line a measure of progress. Far too many projects stall or fail altogether because a crystal clear view of the mission was obfuscated by a cloudy view of the incremental steps required to achieve it. Set clearly defined checkpoints that the entire team understands and agrees to, attach a schedule and list of requirements for each of these checkpoints—then review your progress according to the schedule, and adjust when or if necessary. Remember, there are four downs in football because rarely does the receiver go the full distance when returning the kickoff.
The “long hallway” is no longer measured in feet or yards, but in hundreds of miles and, in some instances, in international time zones. In the short span of two decades, technology has enabled us to move from large, centrally located work teams to smaller, globally distributed teams that are exponentially more nimble, efficient and productive than their titanic counterparts. With little more than a handheld device and a wifi or cellular connection, team members can communicate and collaborate from a near-limitless variety of locations. Similarly, by establishing shared digital workspaces where all pertinent project information is warehoused and regularly updated, individual team members can stay on the same project page without having to stagger down that hallway, however lengthy or short it may be.
Metrics provide a quantitative measure of, and objective counterpoint to, the qualitative assessment discussed in item #2 above. Simply put, metrics enable you to evaluate the status of a project through data that exists outside the frail, eggshell bubble of human emotion, ego and opinion. In other words, hours worked is hours worked—period. Measuring and tracking ongoing relevant team metrics, when complemented by the more qualitative assessments mentioned above, can create a powerful tool for course-correcting a project in near-real time and maximizing overall team productivity and efficiency.
At first blush, this final bit of guidance for elevating team productivity may seem counterintuitive. Who doesn’t enjoy juggling seven spiked, flaming bowling balls filled with gunpowder all at once, right? Isn’t that what being a “Renaissance man” is all about? In reality, multitasking creates the illusion of efficiency to mask the fact that it’s really an opportunity for you to mess multiple things up simultaneously. That’s not to say, however, that you’ll never be faced with multiple tasks running concurrently—that’s completely unrealistic. But instead of leapfrogging from one task to the next haphazardly, team members need to rigorously prioritize one task over another, then complete it before moving onto the next one. Far from being inefficient, this approach has been shown to actually increase efficiency and improve general productivity. To crack open yet another analogy, think yard work: if you mow your lawn for five minutes, then move onto weeding, followed five minutes later by hedge trimming, then edging, and finally back to mowing for another five minutes, it’ll take you nine hours to complete what should have taken you two. Moreover, after five or six weeks of enduring your unkempt lawn, your neighbors will call the city on you.
Are the five pointers outlined above the end all, be all to improving team productivity? Of course not—there are probably 50 others we could add but for the constraints of time, space and willpower. That being said, if you implement just two or three of these suggestions, you’re almost certain to see noticeable improvements in the efficiency and timely output of your team. Will you be able to send a man to the moon? Realistically, probably not. But no doubt you’ll achieve some pretty stellar results.