May 05

Why I hate teams and love collaboration

When I worked in a large corporate, being a team player was definitely considered to be a Desirable Attribute. It always came up in annual appraisals, I always scored well and I always felt a bit of a fraud.


2013-08-01 15.42.26Because the thing is, I don’t enjoy teams. I didn’t enjoy them in netball at school and I never relished them in the workplace either. At one point on a 3 week training course I lost patience with my ‘team’ during one of the case studies and went for a walk instead. They’ll just have to get on with it on their own I thought. But when I came back 5 minutes before the report back to the whole group it turned out they had achieved practically nothing except to nominate me to do the report back (based on no information, a good challenge!).


For me personally, the energy of a team is one of being trapped, of being stuck with possibly the right and quite often the wrong resources, of contriving a motivation under artificial conditions. Teams mean uniforms, rules, annoying people (too lazy, too bossy, too underskilled…) and way to much energy being expended internally on the team instead of externally on the challenge.


You get the picture, it’s just not my thing. Of course I am a civilized human being so I know how to play the game and apparently fooled a succession of bosses over the years. But I don’t look forward to the prospect of being part of a team. Even less if I hear anyone utter the terrifying words ‘team building exercise’ (I never entirely recovered from that paintballing day in 1987).


Collaboration, on the other hand, feels like the most natural thing in the world. From grabbing the bottom rung of a stranger’s buggy to help them down the station steps (partly in gratitude to all the countless strangers who did that for me during the baby years) to pulling together a winning combination of skills and temperaments to get an amazing job done. None of us can be brilliant at everything, and even if we were there could be some ideas that don’t occur to us, or a time issue of doing everything on our own.


To me, collaborating suggests skill sharing, learning from each other, the best of all possible worlds. It suggests a freedom quite different from the team dynamic. A transient alliance that stands or falls on its own merits rather than being bound by contracts or convenience. Someone can collaborate for a few moments or for the whole project. They might dip in and out according to their schedule and their moments of maximum relevance. Sub groups could form and reform within the pool of collaboration. It defines the space where things might happen rather than the bodies or structure involved.


Cultural shifts


I suppose part of the reason collaboration comes easily to me is because I am no longer part of a single organization with hierarchies and reporting structures. Although I did always strive for it in that world too. Now when I need say a great youth facilitator on a project I call my favourite ones and see who is available and excited by the idea. I don’t have to struggle with internal charging and corporate politics.


A client I was working with recently employs tens of thousands of people. How do you find someone who is an expert in something when you’re putting together a new project? I asked. They looked blank. Yet when I did research with their staff, especially the highly energized under 30s, they were hugely frustrated at not being able to apply their specialist skills at work. They would be given documents to review that outside consultants who knew less than they did had been paid to prepare and it made their blood boil. The organization was missing out on their skills and extensive networks while the individuals concerned were disappointed and irritated at losing an opportunity to make an important contribution using and enhancing their skills and special interests.


The reasons given for this lack of collaboration were mostly around protocols that would have made sense when the organization was established 70 years earlier (using, like many organizations at the time, military style command and control structures) but which were no longer the only option. They had never considered using off the peg tools like Linkedin profiles to search for relevant skills that already existed in the employee pool, and they weren’t sure how they might go about accessing them if they could. On the flip side of this particular coin, how many of us have experienced being lumbered with a team member who nobody knows quite what to do with? Not because they will be great to have on the team but because they need to be deployed somewhere and it’s too hard to get rid of them.


Compared to that world, my last ten years as an independent have been liberating. I meet amazing people all over the place – at networking events, at parties, at clients’ offices, even on trains and planes – and I can call them up when the opportunity arises. I love putting two or three of these independent thinkers together and watching the sparks fly as new ideas blossom, free of prejudice and preconception.


It’s not all plain sailing


Of course there are challenges too. The leadership of the collaboration needs some steps and skills that traditional team leaders could maybe get by without.


  1. Setting the intention: It is often necessary to be more explicit – not just about the purpose of the group but also the values under which the collaboration will operate as the chances are you have gathered people from the four winds who don’t have previous experience of working together or shared history. The ethos of the project needs to be clear to all those involved.
  2. Defining the protocols: You will also need to find ways to create a space of honest and open sharing to minimize the time it takes to ‘get going’ and to work out ways to coordinate the various contributors. Does everybody need to know everything or can sub-groups deal with some aspects? Is everybody equal or are some collaborators more core? I like to set up online project space so that there is transparency of information for those who want to know more but the people who are happy to just get on and do their piece are free to do so without an endless chain of emails to process.
  3. Creating loyalty / commitment: You probably lose out on some predisposition or loyalty to the task in hand compared to an already existing team, but the good thing is everybody is there because they want to be so they should have the appetite to work together and get some results.


Task focus or team focus?


One of my concerns about teams I have been in, and those I have studied in the course of my behavioural consultancy, is that quite quickly the team itself becomes the focus of a lot of the energy, rather than the task. It is unlikely that all team members will pull their weight equally, creating space for martyrs and cruisers. It is usual that some team members are more ambitious and thinking more radically than others creating space for conservatives vs progressives. Of course a great team leader can work with these tensions but that in itself is a diversion of energy from the core task.


As histories and legends, strong links and weak links, stories of hurts and betrayals about the team accumulate, there is a risk that the real external purpose of the team can be almost lost to the distraction of the internal dynamics.


My experiences of working collaboratively to solve a problem or create a solution on the other hand have been stimulating, mind expanding and more creative. Ideas from diverse perspectives and skill sets have cross fertilized in unpredictable and potentially valuable ways. I have finished with more respect for my fellow collaborators as I have seen their genius in action. The distraction of power struggles has been less because the focus is on the task of the group rather than the ongoing pecking order of the team.




So where am I going with all this?


We all need to learn from each other, share our mistakes and our messages, mingle ideas, open our minds and our hearts to unexpected combinations and greater possibilities.  As the world becomes more complex we need simpler, lighter ways of doing this that don’t stymie themselves with the trappings of teams. Count me in on the collaboration, just don’t ask me to wear the team t-shirt.

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