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Jan Barkhed

This is a reference to Irving Wladawsky-Berger's Blog, People-Oriented, Services-Intensive, Market-Facing Complex Systems.

Wladawsky-Berger argues that [what he calls] market-facing systems are intrinsically collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature. These systems require people with solid technical competence, but they also require them to have a good understanding of business and management, so the technologies can be successfully brought to market. Furthermore, because of their complexity and interdisciplinary nature, most such problems can only be attacked with a team of people possessing a variety of skills.

Here is the link:

Bob Sutton


Thanks so much for your note, it is really a lovely case that shows how good, evidence-based management can matter. It also shows, as you explain so well, that selecting people who can deal with interdependence well matters most when the work requires cooperation -- which is true for many but not all jobs as you show.

I think I read an article on this long ago called "Teaching an old dog food plant new tricks." Is that the same change effort? Or am I thinking of the wrong one?

robert edward cenek

In the late 80's I was part of an HR and management team that led the highly publicized conversion of 11 manufacturing facilities to high performance work systems (at General Mills).

In our quest to create a more meaningful and productive workplace we were able to reach the following conclusions:

1. True, effective teamwork is predicated on the need for interdependency between the work performed by individuals on the team. The duties of a dishwasher in a hotel restaurant are not very interdependent with those of the front desk clerk. Conversely, the members of a typical football team (even the Cowboys with T.O.) have work duties that are highly interdependent with the other members of their team. Teamwork is not the correct mantra for some work settings.
2. Some individuals are more psychologically maleable for teamwork - i.e., more predisposed to being successful in a team than others. At General Mills we were able to contrast the differences in operation between two plants, with the only independent variable being that the Carlisle PA plant used a validated psychological test battery (developed by PDI) employing the Big 5; while it's identical sister plant in Lodi CA selected individuals strictly on the basis of seniority. The PA plant was approximately 35% more efficient. We attributed the difference in plant operating performance primarily to our ability to recruit and select individuals who were sociable and conscientious, versus hiring rugged individualists who may have been very technically competent in our work setting, but who would not have been as willing to link their personal goals to the overall objectives of the team.

robert edward cenek

Bob Sutton

This is excellent and thoughtful. And in fact groups that use such brainwashing tactics are extremely effective, and as you say, shared common suffering can be powerful ways to build a bond between people. It is why virtually every military in the world uses the methods you say. And you do have a point about the asshole coach too -- external threat does build solidarity. Indeed, to your point, effective managers do sometimes create crises, artificial goals that motivate people.

So I agree with all this, and my main point was about functional versus dysfunctional groups. The fact is that a really bad group can bring out the worst in people, and people do far worse things in groups than they do alone, and far better things too.

Thanks again for your very thoughtful comments.


---I am just not sure how we as a culture get past 300 or so years of ‘rugged individualism” and finally embrace the real possibilities of teams in our companies and organizations.

oh come on, we don't have 300 years of rugged individualism. First, women, generally speaking, don't belive in individualism AT ALL. not a whit. Second, our country loves sports, and they aren't putting tennis and golf above the big four team sports. We are a nation of football, basketball, and baseball watchers. We raise our kids to play on sports teams. We believe in teams through and through. We are simply unclear on HOW to build teams without COACHES, and we aren't taught to be coaches, generally speaking.


---David Maister’s hypothesis that “….you can’t make an effective team out of individualists” ignores the obvious example of the military which does just this every day.

Well, let's be honest: the military brainwashes its members. THis is not a value judgment, but a statement of behavior. It breaks them down and builds them up, and even THEN, they are not always successful.

First, it does not start with anyone over the age of 20something, period--it takes the youngest and most impressionable. Second, it subjects them to extreme mental and physical challenges for many-week period. That period begins with nearly 70 hours of sleep deprivation, and it ends with the same. It takes them away from their homes, their families, and everthing they have as comfort or stability, and they are cut off from the rest o the known world. It forces them to change every aspect of who they are--including prevents them from saying "I" during boot camp (they must say "this recruit".) The military cuts their hair---emasculating them. They make them eat, sleep, and exercise the same way. They are cut off from eveBusinesses can't and don't do this, couldn't do this if they tried.

Maister's point is overstated: in businessland, you can't make a team out of a group of individuals who don't WANT to become a team.

I think Mr. Sutton got confused by the use of the word "team". We often think of a "team" as implying a common goal, as separate from a group. But even a team with a common goal can be a disaster. Sports teams demonstrate this day in and day out. The question is: how to create unit cohesion. For many teams, they answer is a minor version of boot camp: common pain, suffered jointly, that is only survived with all parties interacting. Some teams are created by having an asshole for a coach--everyone hates him, but as a result, they stop finding fault with each other. Some teams are created by circumstance--the 6 people who worked the night of the blizzard together stay a team, etc.

but short of manufacturing a crisis to sift out who wants to become a team, how can a manager create one?

John R. Atkins

David Maister’s hypothesis that “….you can’t make an effective team out of individualists” ignores the obvious example of the military which does just this every day. It is arguable that individualists, at least as I understand that term, are not typically attracted to the military (and without conscription it is hard to say how representative the military is of 18-45 year olds nationwide), but from often the rawest and most unpromising of material, the various services manage to routinely turn out disciplined, focused, and engaged soldiers and sailors.

I am not suggesting that military training and the esprit of military service offer any particular lessons for an investment bank, a McKinsey, or a professional services firm, but if one is looking for a model of effective teamwork – and the stakes are too high for it not to be effective – this is one that works. The most interesting book I have ever read on teamwork (and it was not the book’s primary subject) is Robert Kaplan’s “Imperial Grunts”. The book is a combination travelogue and “embedded” tour of the US military in outposts from Outer Mongolia to Colombia, told from the perspective of mostly enlisted men and women and non-commissioned officers. It is all about how improvisation, spontaneity, creativity, and empathy – characteristics I almost never notice in my own company – can just sort of “happen” in even the most regimented of groups. But why I think the book is relevant to this post is that so many of these kids, and they are kids for the most part, come from a thousand different backgrounds and enlist for a thousand different reasons, yet somehow it all comes together in the tightest of teams without, as Kaplan documents, crushing anyone’s individuality.

I have argued with my own children – they are Generation Y, with all that suggests – that some sort of national non-military-based service for 18 to 20 year olds might give them valuable experience in working with others before they have to do it for a living. After they finish rolling their eyes, they retort that they are going to work for themselves – not like their dad who spent his career toiling for “the Man” – and anyway, if they do somehow end up in a company, they will FaceBook all their new co-workers in advance to make sure they will be comfortable working with them.

I am just not sure how we as a culture get past 300 or so years of ‘rugged individualism” and finally embrace the real possibilities of teams in our companies and organizations. And perhaps individuals do matter as much, if not more, than teams or groups, but if one accepts that it is appropriate for people, say, in the typical company to be able work together effectively, the search for effective approaches to developing, managing, and rewarding teams is a worthwhile one.

Jan Barkhed

My original remark was about how management/HR evaluated and rewarded performance almost solely on individual basis. We know from real life that delivering complex solutions to demanding customers has a lot to do with communication, collaboration, the ability to listen, and viewing subjects from more than one perspective. Having tools and organisations that support these processes have become increasingly more important. At the same time, management/HR seldom evaluate or reward how well these things work, or how well people adapt to them. Instead, people are rewarded on individual performance. Heroes are rewarded by the system, although we know from experience that a system based on heroes will do worse than a system based on sound processes. NASA is probably the most notable example of this, despite recent setbacks. It is understandable that a manager wants to have a person to go to; it’s convenient. It is problematic from an accountability (read blame) point of view to land a problem in a process. There is no question that quality pays of when it comes to people. I would rather have three very experienced programmers than ten average ones. But I would also much rather have a working project team than twenty individualists who couldn’t get along. Brilliance can be the ability to listen, to collaborate, to reflect and understand, and not solely about producing a lot of code.

Bob Sutton


There is this weird finding -- I think I've seen it in research on orange picking and by Berkeley professor Jenny Chatman -- that being an individualist (there is a measure of individualism) and being highly competitive (both measures are highly correlated) that -- although individualists tend to be more selfish when there is no incentive to cooperate or mixed incentives -- that when their is a clear incentive for them to cooperate, they actually become more cooperative than people who "collectivistic" because winning is so important to them.. I have to dig up the citations. Of course, in most of life, rewards are individualistic or mixed, so you don't see cooperative individualists. But the implications for designing reward systems for professional service firms are interesting... and may explain McKinsey's success in part as they seem to define performance so heavily in terms how well people cooperate and share information, and they do pick from a quite individualistic pool of applicants!

David Maister

The4 tension between individualism and teamwork has interested me for a long time. In a 1993 book, I contrasted "Hunters" and "Farmers" - organizations built on contrasting principles of either entrpereneurial individualism or mutual interdependency.

the first thing to report is that there are very strong persnal preferences. Saying teamwork is powerful to a bunch of autonomous individualists is wasting breath.

I don't have the science to prove this, but I think I can show that "one-firm firms" (true team players) do better over the long run, but the evidence also shows that more people pretend they want this than are prepared to accept the strictures that a team-commitment environment requires.

I offer the testable (?) hypothesis that individuals have a built-in prefernce for individualism versus team play, and that you can't make an effective team out of individualists.

T.J. Elliott

This conversation echoed sections of Cass Sunstein's book Infotopia where he reviews the research on deliberations and comes to a similar conclusion that 'the many' are not always better at deciding actions.

BTW Roger Schwarz made very good use of Hackman's research in suggesting how to work with groups in The Skilled Facilitator. This suggests perhaps that teams can get better if they have somone help them with dealing with conflict, etc.

Valeria Maltoni

Bob -
I think by team we can also define those people who come together to achieve a common goal for a defined period of time. I see this becoming more the future of work; people self-selecting to work with each other on projects for hire.

My experience of working in teams started in 6th grade. That's right, middle school in Modena, Italy. We did most of our school work in teams -- designated by the teacher with the highest number of hours. In our case that was the Italian teacher. The project was assigned to the teams who then had to figure out how to divvy up the work -- and share the rewards.

We did not have marks, just 'comments' attached to the evaluations. Well, let me tell you, that 3-year experience did sharpen my negotiation and presentation/sales skills.

So if a team is not performing -- on some occasions, I was stuck with classmates who were not as driven -- the individuals who can will take the lead and make things happen for themselves, and the team. Once this is understood, I think it makes for a stronger individual learner and motivator that carries through in life.

Going back to your thoughts on bad teams: fascinating. In my experience there may be one or two disrupting elements in a team; it can be one of two reasons:
* they consider themselves a star and the team is perceived as slowing them down
* they really, truly, honestly just want to do the 9 to 5 gig, preferably in business as usual mode.

Now, we know that today's reality is not business as usual. Sometimes a cynic is a passionate person who just stopped trying. Would management, policy-land and constraints galore have something to do with that? Perhaps.

As you conclude, teams are an environment, just like many others. Once I got into high school, a very conservative 5-years in classical studies where individual study and output was encouraged, my passion for learning soared. But them again, I studied in groups with my class mates so we could build on each other's strengths.

Thank you for offering another side to this very stimulating conversation.

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