by Peter A. Arthur-Smith, Leadership Solutions, Inc.®
“Collaboration by employees across different departments is essential but seldom easy…For companies having employees labor in isolation can be costly.” Article by Sue Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, November 2017.
Although collaboration makes enormous sense, how do we break our individualistic, solitary work habit that we’ve fostered over the past 100 years? Before the hey-day of the industrial revolution – early 1900s and beyond – things were somewhat different. Workers toiled in fields with their labor-songs and household staff worked in teams in kitchens or living room areas. This meant, by and large, they could enjoy each others company and team-up to take care of their chores.
Frederick Taylor and his industrial efficiency movement changed all that during the early 1900s. He inspired industrial barons to focus on assembly lines, where workers were encouraged to compete against themselves and others in the pursuit of optimum efficiency. Talking to others, other than at meager breaks, was discouraged. Henry Ford was quite open about his desire to just employ pairs-of-hands rather than people.
We still come across some of this assembly line mentality in today’s work environment, even more so in computer programming or trading shops, or administrative pools, where everyone sits in conformity in front of their screens. However, there’s a break-in-the-mold software house that swears-by utilizing programmers in pairs. Its proprietor, Rich Sheridan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, points out the benefits: which include projects always being completed on time, participants not needing to work extra hours, staff always enjoying uninterrupted vacations, and the prospect of learning a lot from each other. You can bet that the return on investment of pairing people together far outweighs the traditional individual efficiency approach. You can probably speculate as to why, as you work your way through this article.
In addition to the many gains indicated so far, work-pairing brings far greater perceived resiliency in difficult situations; which are why police, pilots, surgeons and special forces teams work in pairs. Since two heads are arguably better than one, pairs can watch out for each other, reinforce each other, and fill-the-gap when one partner has a personal emergency. So work-pairing is a great way to build sustained momentum, especially with younger generations who are not hidebound by traditional industrial age, efficiency thinking.
Another great way to build momentum, when dealing with more expansive projects, is to form a team of 6-7 people – even more so when they can be made cross-functional. Six to seven people has proven to be the optimum, effective team size many times over. More members than this and cohesion, communication ties and overall commitment begin to break down. Even larger sports teams associated with football, soccer or baseball break down into smaller offensive or defensive clusters. Other teams like basketball or ice hockey meet the smaller standard when you think about it.
Working with these larger 6-7 teams, you can observe participants building a common purpose, strategy and execution framework that will encourage bonding and a unify focus on tangible outcomes. Ideally, they collaborate to prioritize key issues that need to be solved for accomplishing their mission. Then they determine the three most crucial ones for making decisive progress. At this point, they can pair-up or form a threesome – where an odd number is apparent – and each pair picks one of their three top priorities so all three are covered. Hopefully these top priorities are significant enough that they will have some impact on lower order priorities, too.
Once a team of 6-7, always a team of 6-7, until its more expansive project is accomplished. So, even though they break-off into pairings or threesomes, they regularly come together to share progress experiences until the project is completed. That way, when the full-team meets, it can offer suggestions or insights toward each pair’s challenges. One reality of teamwork is that: ‘No team can move forward faster than its slowest member.’ So, by breaking it up into pairs, it can help offset this challenge: particularly if your slower member is paired with the most potentially capable and/or patient person available.
Consider now some of the key points associated with collaboration, as raised in the quoted WSJ article:
» Silos can prevent companies from providing good service or making products customers say they want.
» Enterprises are trying to foster collaboration to help them react more quickly to market changes.
» Many staff say their projects and designs have grown more innovative and broader in scope due to closer co-operation.
» Working across many disciplines at the same time, enables organizations to tackle issues they otherwise wouldn’t have attempted.
» Projects are more likely to be rolled out on time.
» Teaming staff with diverse backgrounds, tends to produce better ideas and decisions.
Looking through this WSJ article, you will also find several references to the use of team tools to enable participants to better understand each other’s communication and learning styles. Your writer has demonstrated the remarkable value of his own Mercury Communication Preference Survey in enabling team members to collaborate in ways they didn’t think were possible before. Making best use of such tools can require a little patience at the outset, but pay dividends in the long run.
If need be, start with a few baby steps in collaboration. Pair some of your most promising people together to tackle some of your more challenging projects or issues. Even so, try to avoid putting strong likes together, since they are likely to become frustrated with each other over time. Better to put dissimilar people together in pairs, where they can benefit from each other’s complementary talents. Now you will witness much greater momentum across your enterprise.
As you see the results emerge, so you will gain the courage to go further and expand the pairing-principle to many other organization domains. Perhaps we can finally put that deep-seated industrial age thinking behind us?
To learn more about “building momentum,” talk with: