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Is There an I in Team?

pitagorskyMar26 2
“At present, people create barriers between each other by their fragmentary thought. Each one operates separately. When these barriers have dissolved, then there arises one mind, where they are all one unit, but each person also retains his or her own individual awareness. That one mind will still exist even when they separate, and when they come together, it will be as if they hadn’t separated. It’s actually a single intelligence that works with people who are moving in relationship with one another. . . . If you had a number of people who really pulled together and worked together in this way, it would be remarkable. They would stand out so much that everyone would know they were different.” 
~David Bohm (physicist, philosopher, & mystic)

There is an old saying that says that there is “no I in team.” It is another one of those overly simplistic, imprecise and misleading statements that lead both novice and more senior team members astray.

When speaking about interpersonal relationships and team dynamics it is best to acknowledge that there is paradox, complexity and much room for misunderstanding and conflict. Oversimplification is the last thing we need. As Einstein has said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Teams are not simple. Whenever people come together to do anything there is a complex of relationships that must be carefully managed.

When it comes to teams, we are seeking a “single intelligence that works with people who are moving in relationship with one another. . . where they are all one unit, but each person also retains his or her own individual awareness.” In other words, there are a bunch of “I”s who can work together to pool their skills and intelligence to become a unit.

When a team is assembled we seek individuals who have the skills required to play their roles and the ability and willingness to work with others towards a common goal. The concrete skills such as programming, design, testing, and administration are important. These skills are what individuals bring to the team along with their experience and perspectives.

Often overlooked are the ability and willingness to work collaboratively, appreciation for the roles of others, and the acceptance of a common goal and process. These are essential to effective teamwork. Without these the concrete skills may very well be wasted.

Individuals agree to merge their individual goals and values with the goals and values of the team. We can’t expect most people to give up their individuality and personal goals for the team. There may be exceptions to this, for example, military teams like the U.S. Navy Seals, but for the most part, in organizations, reality is that individuals will not sacrifice their lives for the good of the team. Given this reality, we seek a reasonable degree of self-sacrifice.

The ability to work collaboratively is part of the wiring of social animals like humans. Unfortunately, it is easily overshadowed by egocentric conditioning and a lack of relationship skills training. The skills of active listening, conflict management, communication, patience, empathy and mindfulness are all necessary to enable collaborative work. Emotional intelligence is a critical factor.

The willingness to take a productive role in a team is different from the ability to do so. Team work requires a commitment of time and effort and a willingness to subordinate personal needs, at least to a degree, to the needs of the team.

Willingness implies motivation and motivation in team work is tied to organization policies, objectives and values. In an organization that overly values individual performance and autonomy, individuals may not be willing to take a healthy part in the team. In a basketball team if each player was out to maximize his scoring the team would probably suffer. Where the team’s scoring is a mutual objective of the players, the individual is more likely to assist others in their scoring.

Appreciation of the roles of other team members arises when team members have a sense of the big picture and there are clear, accepted team goals and objectives. With an understanding of conflicting objectives (for example the objective of doing due diligence in requirements definition and quality management vs. the objective of finishing quickly), it is likely that conflicts between team members will be avoided when they hold roles required to achieve conflicting objectives. Understanding and acceptance will replace impatience and anger.

The acceptance of common goals and objectives supports the willingness to take a collaborative role and clarifies roles and their importance. Goals and objectives in meaningful projects are often at odds with one another. As stated above there is conflict between the speed and quality. There is also conflict between desires for a complete and comprehensive product and the desire for short term benefits. Other conflicts may include differences in design and approach, among others. Common high level goals make it possible to find resolutions that satisfy competing objectives. A balanced approach is needed.

The acceptance of a common process is also important. In a recent project key team members clashed because they had different understandings regarding the way the project was to unfold. One wanted a phased approach in which short term results would be delivered and refined, while the other wanted a totally finished product before turning things over for use. In the same project some stakeholders thought nothing of continuously adding on must-have requirements that delay acceptance of the product, while others believed that new requirements should be postponed and implemented as future enhancements. A team that agrees upon its methods and procedures is more likely to succeed.

Cultivating the conditions for effective team work requires a combination of

  1. Policy and value setting at the organizational level to promote teamwork
  2. Regular communication of the policies and values to reinforce the message
  3. Training in the relationship skills (communication, emotional intelligence, conflict management, etc.) that are the foundation for teamwork
  4. Project kickoff and ongoing communication within the team to ensure that objectives and approach are mutually understood and accepted by all team members and that relationship and other issues are resolved
  5. Accountability for behavior that affects teamwork and the team’s performance.

Teams are the foundation for projects. A well-functioning team greatly increases the potential for project success. While there are instances of teams gelling and succeeding without any direct attention to the teamwork process, it is more likely that teamwork will have to be cultivated. Treat your team like a rare orchid, care for it.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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