Thoughts about teamwork and competition

Photo by Clearly Ambiguous

I love discovering  new blogs that show me other facets of the ideas I write about here in my blog. The Lean is Good blog certainly falls into this category. Yesterday, a new post was published there titled: Competition Among Peers – Deming’s Third Deadly Disease. Here is an excerpt:

Let’s talk about another assumption that underlies many of these systems – competition between peers increases productivity and effectiveness … it goes to logic that if peers know that at the end of the year only one person is going to get the good bonus or the good raise and one amongst the peers might have to be put on the ‘needs improvement’ list, some people will do what it takes to get the money.  If you force rank or demand differentiation you are incentivizing that behavior.  You have designed a system that encourages individualism at the expense of teamwork and creates an environment where Machiavellian machinations will be rewarded.

I don’t see anything wrong with some healthy competition in the team by itself. Hey, it could spice up the day a little bit. However, the question is: what is the goal and mindset of the competition? An even better question is: what is teamwork all about?

The conventional wisdom that is described in the Lean is Good blog post is that teamwork and teams are groups of individuals where each person tries to be best at the job. And when I say at the job I mean the entire job. That is why at the end of each year, one person goes home. They are all competing on the same skills and they are all measured according to the same measurement criteria. It is based on the underlining assumption that competition, or carrot and sticks, is the best way to motivate employees. And like many conventional wisdoms it is also unfortunately wrong.

That is not how teamwork works.  David Rendall, in his Changethis manifesto The Freak Factory: Making Employees Better by Helping Them Get Worse, reminds us:

Teamwork doesn’t mean that everybody does the same thing. It means that everyone contributes what they do best

And I add to that in my e-book:

There is the known proverb saying: “there is no ‘I’ in the word ‘Team’”. If you ask me, it is a silly notion because it takes to edge of the most important factor of the team – The teammates themselves. I think that a team is composed of a lot of “I”s. That is what makes it a strong team… A team is made powerful by using the comparative advantage of each team member and making it the team’s advantage

Think about a basketball team. If you would only measure one statistic, let’s say points, you would end up with a dysfunctional team. If everybody is trying to score, no one is passing, blocking or moving around. You might score some points in the short run, but you would not win in the long run. The best teams are the teams where every player knows his role is different and does that to best of his ability. This is why that are players whose contribution to the team does not appear on the regular statistic page but are still indispensable for their teams.

If you have a team where everybody “competes” for the same skill set you will have a group of mediocre employees who are good at some things but are not great at anything. And they will not support and complement each other to allow each one to excel at his comparative advantage. Teamwork is about finding synergies between team-members. It is about finding how the combination between each of the individuals makes each one of them better and thus makes the whole bigger.

This is something else that I wrote not a while back:

An effective team, among other things, is a team where every member is attuned with his strengths; where synergies are created from the diverse opinions and talents. And it takes time to create this synergy, because people are so different. But it is their differences that creates strength and allows them to perform excellently. I think everyone who has worked in a team felt it. The difference between the beginning of the life of the team and the end of it, when each team member has learned his teammates’ traits and knows how to work in tune with them

There is a need to encourage peer feedback and communication in teams. There is a need to create mechanism for improvement. There is also a need to motivate employees. However, we can’t do that by creating standard measurement criteria for each team-member and then making them compete against each other on these measures. The feedback, reward or even the layoffs when there is a need to layoff, all have to take into account the specific role of each team-member, his talents and skills and how he helps the team become excellent.