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How does I teamwork?

October 24, 2010

Teamwork: Working together gets the goods!

I imagine that employers and university officials seldom meet, even for merriment and diversion. After all, university officials are busy people, and employers are busy people, yet both groups in different ways. The university polishes the ivory tower, while the business poaches for the ivory, constructs the tower, manufactures the polish, and reaps the profit.

Nevertheless, I imagine that when these two meet, the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the students.

I can imagine a conversation thusly:

UNIVERSITY: What do you like about our graduates?

EMPLOYER: We love that your graduates are effective communicators!

UNIVERSITY: Of course! We started emphasizing communication skills after our last meeting when you mentioned you were disappointed that some employees couldn’t tell a restrictive clause from a nonrestrictive one.

EMPLOYER: Ah…then I guess that means we can share a new disappointment…


EMPLOYER: It seems many new hires just can’t get the hang of working with teams…

UNIVERSITY: Say no more!

…I imagine that from such a conversation, the university officials scramble to promulgate a policy that will incorporate teamwork into the curricula.

For a business school like Mays, I imagine that the way that this translates is that every class begins requiring teamwork for a non-negligible percentage of the grade.

Oh wait. I don’t have to imagine that.

This is the current state of affairs. The idea is simple: to whatever students are more exposed in the university, they ought to be more proficient outside the university. If they need to be proficient in communication, then all of a sudden, classes become designed to be more writing and speaking intensive. But if students need to be more collaborative, then classes will be designed to include more teamwork.

The problem, I would say, is that if you build it, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will come. In other words, providing more opportunities for the improvement of a competency doesn’t mean that one will become competent. People must be trained and taught best practices, or at the very least shown those best practices, before they can begin to implement these.

I guess that isn’t the problem. That is just a symptom: that universities expect that incorporating teamwork into classes will lead to better team players. The problem is more that people believe that effective teamwork is a skill learned organically.

I see this with other business and life competencies. People scoff at ethics education: how can you teach ethics? Either you know right and wrong or you don’t! And I know right and wrong. (Yet we don’t see decreases in scandals, especially in the business world.)

I think the same thing holds true for effective collaboration. Even if humans are social creatures, this does not mean that we are all competent in every social facet…in the same way that just because humans are hardwired for language, this does not mean that American Standard English will be natural to us, nor that we will know how to employ such English in stylistically pleasing and rhetorically powerful ways.

Even if team projects in every class isn’t teaching me how to be a better team player (despite the trial and error possibilities of every class!), it is at least good at allowing me to recognize when I am in a suboptimal team…additionally, now I can recognize more frighteningly that I don’t know what to do when I am in such a suboptimal team.

The college student nightmare is a “bad” team, not a “suboptimal” team. Here’s a way to distinguish: one kind of bad team is one where one member will not do anything. Because he knows his grade is tied to the team (and vice versa), he knows the other members will not let their grades slip, so they will take over his share. Or maybe he’s not malicious; maybe he simply doesn’t care. Regardless, the team will take over the slacker’s share, and the slacker gets a free shot.

That’s a bad team. I’m not talking about that.

Suboptimal teams satisfice — a great term that captures the merely “adequate” character of “satisfying” and “sufficing”. The things I’ve seen in satisficing teams are that team members don’t act as teams…rather, they act as individuals and divide and conquer. Think of a presentation. X person has x part, Y person has y, Z person has z, and then when they come together, they either standardize the PowerPoint designs (adequate), or they don’t (bad). Even if they bring things together so it looks like it was done in one voice, in one style, how can we say there was really a team if we look behind the scenes?

This way of operating as a team seems imminently dissatisfying (dissatisficing?), yet despite this eternal recurrence, this Groundhog’s Day, this reincarnation of teamwork opportunities, that seems to be the way that we do things, with little variation. I don’t know how to learn anything different — sometimes I doubt that there even is a better way — and of course, no one is teaching anything different.


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  1. Ah yes, how elusive is synergy!

    Synergy comes from the ancient Greek word syn-ergos, συνεργός, meaning ‘working together” and that teamwork will produce on overall better result than if each person was working toward the same goal individually. The sum is GREATER than its parts. What you are describing is not synergy…but basic summed parts.


  2. Right on.

    (Unfortunately, because I long for synergy, not sum of parts)

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