It seems that throughout our lives we have been indoctrinated into the idea and benefits of teamwork. I think it starts off when we are children and our parents sign us up for the various team sports that are available. Whether it is little league soccer (or football to my European friends), or little league baseball or youth football (American football, again for my European friends), many of us have been conditioned to want to be part of the team. While this may in fact be a good socializing activity for children, I am beginning to wonder if the current idea of teams and what they have evolved to in business, may have outlived its usefulness in the business game.
Those that know me probably can try to understand how I can possibly question such a basic and heartfelt tenet of business. Everybody else is probably wondering what planet I am actually from. Please bear with me as I go through some of the observations and thinking (or lack of thinking as the case may be) that are going into these questions regarding business teams.
A little background first. I actually played little league baseball as a kid. I wasn’t real good, but I wasn’t bad either. I played third base. As I recall, I didn’t enjoy it all that much. You only really get to play when a ball is hit to you, or it’s your turn to bat. The rest of the time it seemed to go pretty slow.
I moved on. I took up tennis. It was more active, more involved, more of an individual sport. By this I mean that there were usually only me and my opponent on the court at any one time. Oddly enough I was also part of the tennis team. However the difference here was that whether I won or lost was not the result of how the rest of the tennis team played. No one could “pinch hit” for me. I could win and the team could lose. I could lose and the team could win. The success of the tennis team was the result of the sum of the successes of each of the individuals on the team.
It was interesting in that no one individual could win a baseball game, but I guess it could be construed that an individual could lose one. An example would be the baseball player that commits the error that allows the winning run to score. It was also interesting that no team could win a tennis match. It was solely up to the individual performance as to who won or lost.
It was also interesting to note that whether you won or lost was the key. That was the reason you kept score. Unlike today, there were no “participation” trophies. I’ll leave that rant for another time.
As another aside, I think there have been several attempts to create a “Team Tennis” league or format over the years. I don’t think any of them have been successful. It seems the public is not buying into the idea that you can turn what is viewed as in individual contest into a team sport.
When you look at great advancements and successes in business you rarely have them associated with a “team”. You have Bill Gates, and to a much lesser extent Steve Ballmer and Paul Allen at Microsoft. You have Steve Jobs and again to a lesser extent and Steve Wozniak at Apple. If you want to look at historical game changers look at Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. You don’t hear about their teams. You hear about them, and how they led the way and what they did to succeed.
Teams seem to only be good if a leader steps up and provides the vision and direction and an unwillingness to accept anything other than the attainment of the goal. At that point “the” team actually seems to become “their” team. I am sure that there were many others involved with the successes attributed to the men I listed above, but it was the leadership and the force of will associated with the names listed that actually carried the day. The teams may have been good, but it seems that in many instances it was the individuals that were better.
I have written in the past that I believe the consensus environment present in business these days is the evolution of a defensive mindset. The appreciation and value associated with success seems to be overshadowed by the fear and avoidance of making a mistake. The consensus environment has evolved as a way to homogenize the business decision making process. If consensus is achieved there is a security in knowing that if the wrong decision was made, everyone else made it too and the blame will be equally spread.
More and more it seems that teams are created not to achieve a goal, but to achieve a consensus.
If we look at Gates, Jobs, Ford, Edison and Tesla, it is apparent that there were in fact teams associated with their achievements. But they were not the teams of today. They were teams that were organized and structured specifically to realize the vision of the individual. There are many stories associated with each individual where they would not accept less than their vision or compromise their goals based on the input of the rest of the team. There are also stories associated with what the teams went through in order to achieve the visions and goals of the leader.
There was never a question about a consensus or who would be responsible for any failures associated with the team.
They understood that if there was a failure, it was their failure, not the teams. Their team was an extension of their drive and direction. They also seemed to have a different definition or approach to failure. Thomas Edison had this to say about failure:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 1,000 ways that won’t work.”
Bill Gates had this to say about failure:
“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”
And finally, Steve Jobs said:
“Embrace every failure. Own it, learn from it, and take full responsibility for making sure that next time, things will turn out differently.”
These were leaders that failed and were not afraid to fail again. They didn’t like failure. They hated it. They didn’t accept failure as the final decision. If they failed, they viewed it as temporary and something to learn from. They moved on and found another way to succeed. They didn’t stop until they succeeded.
In the team built, consensus oriented business environments of today it appears that company and organizational teams are more afraid of the perception of failure, no matter how transitory than they are driven by the need for success. These leaders understood that success had to be driven, that failure was to be learned from, and that mitigating responsibility for it was not part of the plan.
The team that was once organized to fulfill the vision of the leader seems now to be structured to protect the team members from the stain of possible failure. The avoidance of the responsibility for failure seems to have limited the team’s value as well as its ability to succeed. If everyone on the team must agree on a direction if the team is to move forward, then the team only moves forward very slowing.
If the structure and value of a team has indeed been reduced to furthering the consensus approach to doing business, is it time to step away from it? Gates and Jobs and all the others were very successful without it. Or rather, they built their teams to specifically follow their vision. The fear of failure didn’t paralyze them. They weren’t really all that interested in a consensus. They all knew failure for what it was and used it as the springboard for their next attempt.
Perhaps it is time to get back to vesting the responsibility for performance and success with the individual, instead of the team. If the individual has responsibility then there will be an entirely different dynamic in the team’s work process. It will no longer be so focused on getting everyone to “buy in” or agree on the direction to be taken. It will be more about each individual member of the team delivering on their responsibilities in alignment with the leader’s vision. As noted, those leaders never accepted failure as the final outcome and found a way.
It seemed to work pretty well for some pretty successful individuals.