Groups of individuals working together on the same project (or task) are a new reality in organizational life for more than a few decades now. The wide spread practice of organizing work around teams of individuals with interdependent roles, instead of individual work, reflects an implicit belief that teams working together can perform better. In simpler words the underlying wisdom seems to be the belief that - 'A team is more than the sum of individuals'. But this belief needs a qualified assessment before applying in practice. It has been observed by multiple scholars that a group of highly intelligent individual behaviors can result in worst outcomes at group level and dumb individual behaviors can result in highly intelligence outcomes at collective level (as seen in insect colonies, birds flocking together). Though the vast literature in group dynamics has clearly uncovered a lot of inefficiencies surrounding the team work but there is an asymmetric distribution of opinions, in practice, in favor of the positive potential of a team of individuals. Well there is also huge literature supporting the merits of team work and the idea that 'whole is more than the sum of parts'. In this blog I intend to present a more balanced picture of team work. My objective is to impress my audience into re-evaluation if they hold a one sided view of merits of teamwork and thus managing their teams to better effects.
Generally experienced issues (or shortcomings) in having the work organized around teams of individuals are following - interpersonal conflict, loss of rationality (group think), loss of accountability (social loafing), cost of coordination, and difficulties of operational management (e.g. identifying and rewarding the high performers) etc. These are real and serious issues associated with team work that have been shown to result in outcomes such as lower productivity, morale and decisions that sometime led to disastrous consequences. Janis (1972) coined the concept of groupthink based upon his observations and analysis of four policy decisions that resulted in fiascoes. These include the decision (1) in 1941 by Admiral Kimmel and his advisors to focus on training rather than on the defense of Pearl Harbor (2) in 1950 by President Truman and his advisors to escalate the Korean War (3) in 1960 by President Kennedy and his advisors to authorize the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, and (4) a series of decisions by President Johnson and his advisors to escalate the Vietnam War during 1964-1967. Long before Janis (1972) a similar phenomenon of loss of rationality in group behavior was captured by Le Bon's work on 'crowd behavior'. Other well-known historical figures who had emphasized the loss of rationality in a group of individuals include, Plato - who held the opinion that democracy involved rule by irrational mobs (cited by G. W. Allport, 1968). According to Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay--the first two being members of the Constitutional Convention, "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob" (Publius, 1788/1948, p. 248). Le Bon (1895/1896) formulated the first systematic analysis of crowd behavior in Psychologie des Foules. "Isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian--that is, creature acting by instinct" (cited by Wildschut, Pinter, Vevea, Insko, and Schopler, 2003).
In spite of the above we also observe (and hear) of the incredible performances and achievements by groups of individuals working together. We have before us the examples of many groups which regularly perform intelligent feats for example; Aircraft carriers which need a complex set of operations executed by collective mental operations run almost error free otherwise even minor lapse can be disabling and the group can experience catastrophes, but rarely accidents do happen. We've whole lot of examples where a team of individuals have achieved great success from launching a satellite to winning a state election for a party. In IT industry project teams and management team execute tasks (projects) which would be unimaginable to be performed by separate individuals.
So finally to wind up the discussion the basic idea I want to communicate is that groups have a mind of their own which stays in shared understandings arrived at after significant interactions among members and the basic units of this mind include shared/accepted ways of operating. This is somewhat similar to concept of 'culture' and also analogous to an operating system in a computer we can call this a 'Team Operating System'. Whether teamwork is better than independent tasks assigned to indivuduals is determined largely by the qualities of a collective mind. But it is certain that a collective mind can (and does) exists independently of the minds of it's constituent members. And for effective management of teams we need to understand and be able to write, create and manage an appropriate 'Team Operating System' (TOS). A general good TOS would have mechanisms of commanding the general commitment and efforts of it's members towards team goals through optimal satisfaction of their personal needs/desires. Team leadership is not only responsible for creating and managing the right kind of TOS but also to complement it with 'active direction'.
Allport, F. (1962). A struturonomic concept of behavior: Individual and collective: 1. Structural theory and the master problem of social psychology. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 64, 1-30
Janis, I. L. 1972. Victims of groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Le Bon, G. 1896. The crowd. London: Unwin. (Original work published 1895)
Weick, K. E. and Roberts, K. H. 1993. Collective Mind in Organizations: Heedful Interrelating on the Flight Decks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38: 357-381.
Wildschut, T., Pinter, B., Vevea, J. L., Insko, C. A. and Schopler, J. 2003. Beyond the Group Mind: A Quantitative Review of the Interindividual-Intergroup Discontinuity Effect. Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 129, No. 5, 698-722