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Teamwork – Is it Over-Rated?

Teamwork – Is it Over-Rated?

Most organizations talk a lot about the importance of teams and teamwork and often wish they had more of it. However, is the desire for more teamwork as important to organizational success as it is suggested to be or is it somewhat overrated (and the pursuit of it even counterproductive)?

At first sight, the thought of a closely knit and flexible team, with a strong sense of collaboration and cooperation to achieve its goals seems hard to argue with, and we can then spend a huge amount of time encouraging as much teamwork as possible at all levels. However, if we look a little closer, even this ideal is not always what we want or need. In fact, some workplace research studies suggest that as much as 90% of all tasks are done by individuals working entirely alone and without any regular input from a wider team, even if it is part of a wider project that the team as a whole is responsible for producing. This means that we need to perhaps better understand, and spend more time on, what tends to get best done outside the team or when someone works better alone (or with only one or two people perhaps).

Although it is a somewhat over simplistic approach, one useful way in which we might think about individual versus teamwork is to look at what tends to be done well by a team and then done well by an individual.  This will naturally vary from one organization to the next but in broad terms a split might look like this:

Working in a team Working as an individual
  1. Great when individuals like working with others and may therefore be more productive when doing so
  2. When tasks are complex and need lots of input and communication
  3. Where people tend to enjoy cooperative and collaborative projects
  4. Where regularly sharing ideas among/across the group is important
  5. Where one person’s knowledge and abilities are limited
  6. Where an individual’s perspective is different or unique or they have different experiences and backgrounds
  1. Great where people like to work quietly alone and in an uninterrupted manner
  2. When tasks or projects need contemplation or creative reflection
  3. Where individuals need to make decisions on tasks and projects largely by themselves without much reference to others
  4. Where task or project concentration or focus is critical
  5. In circumstances where individual goals are more important that those of the group to get a desired outcome
  6. Where fast work and decisions are necessary

What this simple table illustrates is that we may find it more useful to think about which tasks and projects are best allocated to a whole team, and then let that team split them up accordingly, and which can go straight to an individual without asking them to work with the team in any way. For this latter category of work (which may be quite a lot in volume terms) teamwork is clearly to be avoided. 

Summary

In his autobiography, Apple co-founder Steven Wozniak wrote, “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone … I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.” Although this view may well take the pendulum too far on the continuum, it nicely sums up the need to think about individual creativity and productivity as at least just as important as overall team productivity and success.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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