Monday, October 15, 2007

Great Teams are More Productive

A good reminder on why teamwork is important.

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September 12, 2007

Mathematical proof that teams are more productive

Dear Bob ...

I liked this weeks' Keep the Joint Running ("The causes of greatness," 9/10/2007).

You have an assertion - that good employees who work together as a team outperform great employees who don't.

For a very long time I've been looking for a reference that provides some/any evidence for this, apart from anecdote or assertion.

Do you know any sources that show teams are more productive and creative?

I've read a heap of Jerry Weinberg's & friends work - this is one of their major planks. I believe it to be true,
from my own experience, both negative and positive, I know it to be true, but haven't been able to find any hard/definitive evidence.

- Teaming with curiousity

Dear Teaming ...

Nope. Like you, all I've heard is assertion and anecdote. Seems to be a chronic problem in the business press, doesn't it?

Looking at professional sports is the usual way to assess this. Of course, you then have to decide which sport to look at.

In the Ryder Cup, it's pretty much about which "team" has the great players.

In football, though, teamwork is essential or your star quarterback will still get creamed. (On the other hand, try asserting that the Packers without Brett Favre would still have won the Superbowl a few years back because they had teamwork. Not very convincing, is it?)

In the end, I think this is what mathematicians would call a "Q.E.D." situation. When work processes require cooperation among employees, those who know and trust each other will be able to spend more time and energy doing the work and less questioning and challenging each other. While we'd need actual evidence to compute exactly how much less time, the principle seems pretty solid based on the logic alone.

- Bob

The causes of greatness

ManagementSpeak: Thanks to your superhuman effort we dodged a bullet.
Translation: Your job is now to dodge one bullet per week.
This week's contributor asked to remain anonymous, possibly due to a need to engage in bullet-ducking.

Depending on the business expert I'm listening to and the day of the week, I know three truths:

1. Good employees who work together as a team outperform great employees who don't.

2. Good employees with great processes outperform great employees with bad processes.

3. If an employee is irreplaceable you should immediately fire that employee.

From first-hand observation I know that when it comes to Information Technology organizations:
  • Great employees can and do overcome bad processes.
  • Great employees can and do overcome lousy managers.
  • Great employees can and do pull along mediocre teams.
  • Making one or two great hires is the most critical step in turning around an underperforming organization.
  • Well-designed processes can be pretty useful, too.
Which is to say, if you want an organization that works, you'll get more leverage from hiring great employees than from any other single effort you can undertake.

Great employees can overcome organizational deficiencies to deliver useful results. They can't, by themselves deliver a great organization. That takes a lot more.

The question of what makes a great organization tick is rife with superficial thinking. The usual approach is what you might call the "Tom Peters Fallacy":

  1. Find a great organization.
  2. Identify a trait in that organization you like.
  3. Decide that this trait is what makes that organization great.
  4. Declare that this trait is the panacea for all other organizations.

As far as I can determine, there is no one characteristic that by itself can make an organization great.

Well, okay -- there is one: excellent leadership. That only works because I define "excellent leadership" as "Doing everything required to build a great organization," thereby begging the question.

So ... what is required to make an organization great, as opposed to simply functioning?

Leadership: A great organization does start with strong leadership, in a non-question-begging way. If there's no direction -- no focus, no goals, no plan, no definition of excellence, no clearly stated expectations for employees to live up to; no alignment of purpose and standards -- the employees will keep things going, but not much more than that.

Great employees: Not every employee has to be a superstar, although all must be competent. Great organizations do need enough top-notch performers to demonstrate that high standards are achievable, not theoretical.

Focus on achievement: The definition of "great employee" has been diluted through too many managers reading about "emotional intelligence." Employees who are focused on getting along will concentrate on how irritating their colleagues are. Employees who are focused on achievement will value their colleagues' contributions and ignore their eccentricities.

Teamwork: Just as the definition of "great employee" can't ignore the importance of serious technical ability, it also can't ignore the importance of working and playing well with others, and of providing leadership in the trenches.

Willingness to innovate: This is IT we're talking about. Information technology. The field where if you can buy it, it is obsolete by definition. IT organizations and everyone who works in them must be willing to try new technologies, processes and practices ... and even more important must be driven to constantly find improvements to the ones already in production ... or they stagnate.

Willingness to not innovate: "State of the art" means "doesn't work right yet." Most of the time, the work required of IT is best achieved by extending what you have, not by chasing whatever is being hyped in this year's press releases, aided and abetted by publications hungry for advertising revenue.

Evidence-based decision-making: Great organizations make decisions through the use of evidence and logic, not wishful thinking and listening to one's intestines.

You'll note the usual buzzwords are notably absent. Governance, ITIL, CMM and all the other processes and practices (I used to call them Processes and processes) that are supposed to lead to inexorable success don't, in fact, lead to excellence.

Excellent IT organizations do have them. Even more important, they are kept in their proper place -- as useful tools that help employees be as effective as possible.

The best woodworkers have band saws, coping saws, lathes and routers in their workshops, and not just hammers and chisels, but their tools aren't what make them the best.

Great IT organizations are the same. They practice good governance; follow consistent application maintenance, enhancement, design and testing methodologies; adhere to clearly defined change control procedures; and otherwise avoid making things up as they go along.

Their processes and practices are important. They are, however, merely the signs of a great IT organization.

They are not its cause.


Gerald M. Weinberg said...

Since you mentioned my name, I've written a long response to this question about team productivity on my own The Secrets of Consulting blog. I invite you to take a look, and perhaps to exchange links. - Jerry Weinberg

Walter Underwood said...

There is hard evidence on this and it is described in the book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management.

The short version: the study compared organizations that hired a new manager to those where the new manager also hired in people they'd worked with before. There was a big difference in financial performance. This is part of a chapter about whether you should concentrate on hiring talented individuals or teams.

This is a great book, with evidence for good business practices and instructions on how to evaluate evidence yourself.

Walter Underwood said...

Hmm, Blogger stripped the link. The "Hard Facts" book is here: