Syndrome of Individuality

October 23, 2006

In a Financial Times article published this week, Professor Henry Mintzberg denounces the teaching of leadership so popular these days in U.S. MBA programs. His comments continue an ongoing debate about how B-schools can best prepare graduate students to meet the needs of modern organizations.

We have this obsession with ‘leadership’. Its intention may be to empower people, but its effect is often to disempower them. By focusing on the single person, leadership becomes part of the syndrome of individuality [that is] undermining organisations.

A syndrome of individuality has long been evident in American culture. Mass media focuses on singular leaders in positions of authority; the CEO, the president, the quarterback. We focus on individual “superstars” much more than effective contributors to collaborative efforts. Corporate reward structures often still focus on individual performance, or link only a small percentage of bonuses to the productivity of the team.

Excessive attention to leadership can be disheartening to many, because it appears to discount the value of non-leaders. Taking into account that so few employees ever become managers or corporate leaders, Ira Chaleff suggests in his book Courageous Follower that it is more important for companies to offer training on being a good follower than it is to concentrate solely on leadership. Such training can signal that the organization also values those who do not hold management positions, as well as teach important teamwork and “followship” skills. (This is not to suggest that companies should eliminate leadership training; rather that opportunities exist to broaden the scope of training.)

Clearly, many organizations have made progress in embracing a culture of collaboration, becoming flatter, and dispersing authority and accountability to those closest to the issues. With the urging of Mintzberg and others, is it possible that top-flight teaching institutions, and the country as a whole, will move away from the syndrome of individuality?

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Benefits of team building exercises and practical tasks

October 15, 2006

The Furious Coder has a good post about Building Great Teams. He argues that teams gain more from collaborating on practical tasks than from typical team building exercises. Regarding team building exercises, he writes:

… when there is no real external goal, people realize it’s just a game, and they don’t take it as seriously as if there is a “real project” on which to focus. When the goal is simply to build an effective team, people will fall into arbitrary roles as leader or follower because they want to give the appearance that things are running smoothly. [] If the team knows that they’re not actually gaining any external skills, or accomplishing any external task, then they won’t take it as seriously, nor will they learn to rely on each other. There’s no real penalty for failure.

Although I agree with these points, I also find value in team building exercises, when they are done well. A prerequisite, of course, is for team members to take training exercises seriously and to share a desire to improve their teamwork.

When the attitude is right, team building exercises are very useful for introducing new concepts and injecting fresh energy. Because there is no pressure to produce concrete results, team members can concentrate on improving “how” they collaborate, without having to also focus on “what” they are collaborating about. Additionally, when teams are working through certain issues (which team isn’t?), abstract team building exercises can be especially helpful because they depersonalize activities, placing attention on improving behaviors for the group as a whole rather than focusing on each individual .

Still, when the desire is to target team building on specific activities that the team engages in frequently, nothing works as well as working together on practical tasks and projects. Again, from Furious Coder:

The best way to build a team is to give the team a short, meaningful task, give them the tools they need to accomplish that task, and then set them loose on that task with a short deadline and the requirement of interdependence among the team members.

Using smaller, meaningful tasks for team building has several advantages. The approach is likely to produce tangible outcomes for the organization. Teams gain valuable practice using actual tools and processes. Additionally, real tasks allow team members to become even more familiar with each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Finally, teams have the chance to succeed together, which is critical for teams to gel as a unit.

What has worked for your teams? Have you had more success with team building exercises or practical tasks, or both? What have you found to be the greatest benefits of each?

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