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We Need Teamwork - But Is It The Only Useful Form Of Work?
Two of today's buzzwords are Team and Teamwork. Those with a particular desire to conform to the spirit of the age portray them as the polar opposite of individual achievement, which embodies everything that is bad and "out", whereas teamwork is good and "in".
Teamwork has been one of the most frequently used expressions in management for some time. Almost without exception, the word is meant positively; teams and teamwork are regarded not merely as forms of work necessary under certain circumstances or as one of several possible options but as the only desirable form of work. Teams are considered in principle and in general to be superior to the individual. The team is viewed as good, efficient, creative and successful per se. That all sounds rather nice. Unfortunately, though, there is not a shred of evidence that this assumption is correct.
Not that there is no need for teamwork. Yet this has always been the case. What is so new about it that requires special emphasis; and what makes it so difficult that it must be learnt and practised separately? What is more, how can one justify the dogmatism associated with it, which chooses to see it as the only form of useful work?
What is so difficult about teamwork?
Since humans have existed, cooperation has been a matter of course in daily life. What is called a team today is the basic form of any social structure whatsoever. It is virtually the constitutive element of society, namely the cooperation of people in different variations in order to cope with life, whether it be the various forms of the family, the prehistoric pack of hunters, the tribal community, the rural farming community, the handicraft business, the village community and so forth. Nobody could have survived without cooperation; Robinson Crusoe is only a novel.
For this reason, it was never a problem for anybody to work in and as a team with others. Nobody needed to be taught it; nobody needed to learn it as a special discipline. Life, as it existed, happened in teams; life was teamwork. Hence teamwork has scarcely merited a mention from historians. Surely one has never encountered passages like this: "...and then the Assyrians invented the team...".
Yet what we are increasingly confronted with today are senseless forms of organisation and impracticable types of labour division, which prevent almost any productive work or make it inhumanly difficult at any rate. For example, anybody who has to work in a matrix organisation - mostly introduced too quickly, indiscriminately and without proper consideration - must have the kind of abundance of teamworking ability that is only seldom encountered and cannot as a rule be produced, however much training is given. It is therefore much better, more effective and more economical to modify the organisation.
The purpose of organisation is not to make work difficult for people. On the contrary, it is supposed to make it easy to work. By not imposing performance-hindering organisations on people, one will quickly observe that most of them can cooperate rather well with each other, without any major problems - precisely because that is one of the quite normal abilities of ordinary people - and that there are no particular requirements for teamwork training.
Nobody would have the nonsensical idea to demand that people drive a car, play a musical instrument or compete at chess as a team. People know that tasks of this kind, if they are to have any chance of success and efficiency - or even brilliance - can be performed only by individuals and that no amount of team training would lead even to mediocre achievements. It is clear that the performance of a symphony requires teamwork and no musician particularly needs to be told this. However, it does not follow from this that the trumpet is blown by a team.
If one were to configure the positions and tasks in management with the same care exercised by the great composers in the construction of the individual voices of a symphony, teamwork would not be an issue or - more precisely - it could be relied upon that ordinary people quite naturally bring with them everything they need to work together. Teamwork would be no problem. Yet no amount of training will achieve the opposite: to compensate for the mistakes in the job design and in the organisation through team training.
What is the truly great accomplishment?
The things that people need to be able to do in order to work together can thus be presupposed under sensibly designed conditions. But what about the really outstanding accomplishment? Is the real peak achievement - the great creative task - not a matter for the team? Would the ordinary teamworking ability of ordinary people still be sufficient for that task? Or should special training not be applied here now?
Many great achievements, especially those commonly referred to as breakthroughs, were accomplished by individual people, sometimes by individuals with assistants but virtually never by teams. There are no team compositions in music, nor any works of literature that were produced by teams; team painting is not a known art form, nor did any of the great sculptors actually work in a team.
Contrary to widespread opinion, this also applies to science to such a great extent that it should be taken seriously. The great works of philosophy, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities were, with a few exceptions, created by individuals.
Teams are tools, just like individual work. One must neither factor out one of these forms of work nor should one put it on a pedestal. The way in which to work - which form of work is the best - must be determined by the task and not by dogma.
In the world of organisations, tasks must be configured in such a way that they can be performed by ordinary people (because there is no other kind) who have ordinary abilities (because others cannot be learnt).
Corporations that want to achieve results have to master both things: teamwork and individual achievement, each where it fits.
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