Some time ago Adam Smith explained why the division of labor leads to greater productivity:
It enables people to specialize and thus become very good at what they do.
But there’s a catch. Or three.
(Want to know why many team building exercises cause problems? Scroll down to “Business is not a sport, so don’t copy sports teams.”)
Catch #1: Today we take it for granted that specialization, created by the division of labor within teams, will result in productivity gains. But should we take this for granted?
Explanation: Too often, at least for my liking, I encounter teams that allow people to specialize in nonsense, and to become very good at it too. There are two main reasons this happens. (1) Team members forget why the team exists in the first place. (2) And they prize team cohesion above speaking out against nonsense.
When why the team exists begins to matter less than that the team exists, you have a team which has become very good at . . . . But I’m sure you can figure that out for yourself.
Hence, the first step in my coaching interaction with a team is to clarify why the team exists in the first place.
Catch #2: Team building exercises make me nervous. At best, they teach people how to do meaningless things together; at worst, they produce the opposite effect.
Explanation: This happens when the focus is on team building instead of on a work-related outcome.
A friend was once told to improve teamwork with her client by going river rafting together. In her own words: “Before, I thought he was an idiot. Now I know.” So much for team building. What should have mattered was the work they produced together, not whether they could paddle together.
You don’t want people who are good at liking each other and trusting each other and paddling well together. You need people who care so much about the outcome that they overcome their liking to deal with any member who is not performing.
Hence, the second step in my coaching interaction with a team is to uncover the outcomes that matter.
Catch #3: Socially, our consensus about how we interpret our environment seems to work well enough. But at work, well enough is often not good enough.
Explanation: Because we rely so much on our agreement of what constitutes reality, perceptual errors can be disastrous for team effectiveness. And yet, many managers ignore the power of perceptions and fail to manage perceptual errors.
Solution: Your role, as team leader or as team member, is to remember that people don’t behave according to strategies and instructions. People act on their perceptions.
Business is not a sport, so don’t copy sports teams
It is ridiculous for business teams to try to be like sports teams. And it can be dangerous. Here’s why:
- Sports teams train and prepare for only one sport. Team members know exactly which sport they’re playing, how to play it and which rules apply. How simple!
- Sports teams wear uniforms so that they can easily spot and identify the competition. They also introduce themselves as the competition before each game. How polite!
- Competing teams agree to respect the umpire (or referee). Umpires (or referees) tend to be very visible, very loud and very strict. How reassuring!
- Best of all, sports teams face only one competitor at a time, at a date and place agreed on well in advance. How convenient!
In business you do not have these luxuries, which is why I think sports teams should study how business teams do it.