This is a graph – courtesy of Google – showing the use of the word over the past 200+ years.
The bump in usage around 1950 seems to correlate somewhat to the Human Relations movement in management thinking. Frankly, before that, Scientific Management gave its minimal nod to teamwork by suggesting that a manager try to keep relations between himself and the workers (presumably his “team”) smooth. Taylorism (our historical name for Scientific Management, especially when we are heaping derision on it), proscribed smooth relations by making sure the worker had nothing to do with planning or managing his own work. A February 2009 Economist article – the adapting thoughts from author Tim Hindle – says, “There is little space for Taylor’s ideas in today’s world of freewheeling teamwork.”
Human Relations taught us that teams mattered and that teamwork was essential – or, did it?
Notice the decline in usage around the 1970’s.
Human Relations had become more about the individual than the team. In our little world of coaching, we call that tipping the human and operational balance. Balance is what we are aiming for. Just as Scientific Management had tipped the scale in favor of operations (standardize and improve to improve output and reduce cost), human relations had tipped it in favor of the human side (satisfy the individual’s needs, individuals perform and think this way or that way, so handle each one individually…).
Teamwork as a popular notion was in decline.
I’ve written a little about this balancing act before, noting that Deming re-introduced balance. In fact, I argue that we are still in a Total Quality movement that at foundation relies on the idea that all of us is smarter than one of us. You only need to consider Deming’s point that rating the individual had a significant negative effect on the sustained interdependency found in business processes.
So where does that leave teamwork? In the middle of it all. Individuals can learn a problem solving process, but only teams can solve complex problems.
Teamwork is as important today as it has ever been. We Western thinkers have difficulty grasping the true nature of interdependency. We would do well to study Eastern thinking that uses the human body to illustrate interdependency in an organization. We know it when we see it on our 60 inch HDTV on Sunday afternoons in the fall. We know it when we hear our favorite band turn something that, without synchonization and cooperation, could end up in a chaotic cacophonic mess. We just don’t let that grasp bleed too far into our leadership thinking.
You could spend a lifetime doing that. In the short term, here are three things you can work on to improve teamwork around you:
1. Structure your teams so that team leader can facilitate solving problems. We misunderstand organizational “span of control” in an organization, thinking that it has something to do with the leader’s ability to “manage” people (read: individual effort). Rather, think of the whole purpose of the team structure as supporting the problem solving process.
2. Create communication that leads to conflict. Conflict is what sharpens a team. Communication that aims at unearthing facts will start conflict. Wise leaders know how to use facts to deescalate the conflict and get alignment leading to consensus.
3. Work on team pride. Team pride develops when leaders promote factual communication and lead the team to solve problems, also known as improved performance (leading them to win). Team pride develops when we practice so that when it really matters (game time), we have the muscle memory to solve complex problems. Lastly, wise leaders help us team members to relate to one another as whole people, not just our compartmentalized selves strapped daily to our desks.
Remember that teams are the basic organizational building blocks for high performing organizations. Leadership will make all the difference in the world. Lead your team to be a team…or just get out of the way so someone can.1