Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

In the latter part of the 20th century, "Team Building" became recognised by many companies as an important factor in providing a quality service and remaining competitive. Yet as we stride into the 21st century, the term "team building" can still sometimes seem rather nebulous - people often know that they need it, but aren't quite sure what it is.

As a result, team building is used in all sorts of contexts, even when it is not appropriate.

A Basic Definition

To examine this in more depth, we need to start with a basic definition.
Some people define a team as being "the whole is greater than the sum of its' parts". But this isn't the right definition; it is a feature of good teams. 'Whole > sum' shows that they are working well together - but there are some teams whose collective performance falls short of what you might expect given the quality of individuals. The
Apollo Syndrome is a good example of this - where highly intelligent people often performs worse than teams made of up 'less-able' members.

Some people define a team as being the people who report to the same boss. This can be misleading. In a well-designed organisational structure, people reporting to one boss do often form 'teams'. But when designing organisational hierarchies there are often compromises made because of pay structures or the need to have traditional reporting lines.

Whislt a team is a group of people, a group is not necessarily a team. Rather, a team is a group of people working together towards a common goal. .


If a team is a group of people working towards a common goal, 'team building' is the process of enabling that group of people to reach their goal. It is therefore a management issue, and the most effective form of team building is that undertaken as a form of management consultancy, rather than as pure training (though there is a role for training within an overall programme).
In its simplest terms, the stages involved in team building are:

To clarify the collective goals

To identify those inhibitors that prevent them from reaching their goals and remove them

To put in place enablers that assist them

To measure and monitor progress, to ensure the goals are achieved

Traditional techniques often address the inhibitors to collective performance: relationships, communication, etc.. However, if a group is only a group, then the benefits of such techniques may be limited. At best, there may be no need to resolve relationship problems; at worst it can be a waste of time and detract the people involved from achieving their individual goals.

Relationship problems

If there are problems between people working in a group, then this can have a negative impact on their individual performance. However, traditional techniques are not the solution.
The stress in a relationship between two people is governed by the formula:
(proximity of the two people) x (importance they succeed together)
(compatibility of their personalities)
In a group, the 'importance' is low. However, traditional techniques implicitly try make the importance score higher than it need be. This makes the stress score worse, because you are forcing people to work well together when they don't need to.
Also, traditional techniques sometimes tries to address the incompatibilities of the personalities involved, eg: on a personality workshop. Whilst this can be done, it is hard work and needs both parties to be committed to it. In a working group, the motivation for such difficult work is unlikely to be there - though, if they are willing to do it for personal reasons, then a personality workshop can have some effect.
However, to reduce relationship stress in a group, it is better to focus on the factor that is easiest to change: proximity. If they are only a group, then putting some distance between them (physically or by managing the boundaries between their work) will achieve a satisfactory result, without having to invest a lot of time.
A team is a group of people working towards a common goal
Team building is a process of enabling them to achieve that goal
If they are only a group, then traditional techniques can be a waste of time/money or even counter-productive.

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