Why team problems require individual solutions

Sep 10, 2019 |Posted by Jared Simmons | Innovation

There is very little team work in an office setting. We have our own computers, work spaces, and email accounts–how much work product is created outside of those tools? Ultimately, every document and decision comes from someone.

Healthy offices do require teamwork. Individual work must be combined and coordinated in a way that maximizes efficiency and minimizes risk. But I can think of very few instances of a team actually working together on something.  Teams work best when they focus on how each individual’s work, priorities, and personalities fit together.

The way we try to “fix” failing cross-functional teams treats the team as the entity–as if the sum parts are a single organism with limbs that are designed to serve specific functions. This implies that there’s only one set of priorities and one purpose, but that’s just not the case. Here are three reasons to consider addressing your next “team” problem differently.

There are many competing priorities within a team

A team will never have a single set of priorities. Each individual sets his own priorities based on career goals, manager expectations, team needs, family demands, relevant skills and personality traits. Fortunately–contrary to popular belief–this isn’t a necessary ingredient for success. Unfortunately, though, “getting everyone on the same page”  is the first tool in the “fix-my-team” toolbox.

Even if everyone understands the team’s objective, each individual prioritizes it against their own goals. And unique skills and experiences create unique approaches to achieving it. Any sustainable solution to team challenges must approach it as a collection of multi-faceted individuals.

Individual strengths must be complementary to be additive

It’s often said that everyone should be “singing from the same sheet of music.” I have been in choirs since I was 4 years old. I have never seen a choir literally singing from the same sheet of music. Instead, one composition is broken down into parts uniquely suited to each person’s individual skills. These parts are carefully designed to fit together in a complementary way. Creating one composition (roles and structure) that incorporates the unique contributions of each team member is the central challenge for the modern office. How do we craft jobs that enhance individual effectiveness instead of reducing it?

Composers would never ignore the differences between sopranos and baritones, yet we build project teams with little attention who employees are and how they work best.

Teams are not “things” to be fixed

The office team is not an entity; it is a figment of our imaginations. It is a concept created to allow us to organize people. We know so much about people today–how they think, what motivates them, how they behave in certain circumstances. We now have the tools to solve “team” problems on a personal level, with personality assessments and collaboration techniques. Let’s put them to use as problem solving tools instead of icebreakers at your next office retreat.

How are your working teams designed? Are there individuals that are “singing in the wrong section?” Does your team know what you do best?

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Jared Simmons

Jared is the founder of Outlast Consulting LLC, a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations with strategy, process improvement, and professional development. He is an engineer by training with experience in market research, product development, innovation, management consulting, and strategic planning at P&G, McKinsey, and Coca-Cola.


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