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One of the most frequent article opening lines of our era, “The world of work is an increasingly …” must surely rank as a cliché of business writing, even if framing truisms in 500 words or less is the kind of challenge that mainstream journalism tends to set. It’s also one of those truisms that are, to be frank, eternal. Teamwork isn’t some new fangled blinding flash, and I’m sure we could unearth (no pun intended) a few archaeologists and anthropologists to back up that assertion. Somehow, I don’t think Avebury rose from the Wiltshire plains because a tribal leader fancied a monument and sent smoke signals out to a preferred supplier list of stonemasons. Teamwork was certainly around 300 years ago when Isaac Newton admitted its importance:

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

And there’s always that timeless electricians’ mantra: “many hands make light work.”

Teamwork is timeless because no man or woman is an island. Even the most anti-social, introverted or malodorous of us depend on others to some extent: unless you are entirely self-sufficient in food, heat, light, shelter, sanitation and so on, others are involved. I will always recall one colleague inadvertently thinking out loud in response to the eternally irritating “There is no “I” in “teamwork” and saying “Yes, but there’s no “f” in “Co-operation” either, is there?” She wasn’t thanked for her contribution.

I’ve just briefly trawled the archives of Wired magazine as I dimly recalled an issue from the late 1990s that, in the magazine’s fashion of the time, was punting ‘co-opetition’ as the Next Big Thing. (Although I did remind myself of Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff’s book of the same name, still available at Amazon, and still reminding us that ‘you’re either for us or against us’ is only one outlook on the world. I also couldn’t help thinking of HR Bartender’s wonderful Thinking Both/And post that I’ve found inspiring before.)

Teamwork, in its different aspects, is a fact of life, but one that it seems theorists and professionals from disciplines beyond business have to remind us about from time to time. The Wired article I couldn’t find came from one of those passing eras when biology was the science du jour: the natural world is another long-running source of teamworking clichés. And just as there are verbal cliches, so there are visual ones: mention teamwork, and someone will probably start drawing bees. I’m drawn to honeypots as much as the next man, but I figured a bit of reading about bees might be an educational thing, so I volunteered to take one for the team and do some investigative Googling so I could share any enlightenment I found. (Maybe if I looked into birds next time, I could tell myself my education is complete.)

The use of bees as a model may not be such a bad choice, judging by research conducted by Dr Andy Gardner from the University of Edinburgh and covered in the Daily Telegraph: bees and the noticeably less photogenic ants can, it seems, create and act as ‘super-organisms’ – hives and nests can operate as some kind of bigger aggregated organism. We might wish to see other animals as fine exemplars of teamworking, but it seems the analogy doesn’t hold too true – a herd of bison or a shoal of fish might look like synchronised selflessness but “is in fact each animal jostling to get to the middle of the group to evade predators”. Which explains both the concept of safety in numbers -and a lot of office behaviour – but isn’t teamwork. And I couldn’t help thinking that the bees’ model had its own distinctly de-motivating aspects:

If you look at honey bee workers, they don’t have much opportunity for mating, but they can still lay eggs that can develop into males. But when other workers encounter those eggs, they eat them. It means if you’re a worker, you cannot get ahead by pursuing your own reproduction, so you might as well help the queen with her reproduction.”

I’ve worked with (no, make that for) some archetypal queen bees in my time, but it never got that personal.

An article at Leadership Strategy Insider, meanwhile, seemed to be looking to blow a trumpet for the maverick tendency:

The communication process of bees is marvelous, but the oft times hidden essence of their survival process is that only 82 percent of the hive are genetically predisposed to follow instructions—the other 18 percent are mutants, incapable of compliance. These undisciplined explorers (does the term loose cannon sound familiar) take off without flight plans. In the process of failing, a percentage of them find new sources of pollen. Without mutant bees, the hive would soon deplete its known source of nutrients and become extinct.”

Which sounded interesting and impressive until a) you contemplate what would happen if there were more mutants – with their inherent lack of individual strategic sense, b) I discovered that I couldn’t find a scientific paper that backed it up (although if bee mutations are your thing, start here), and c) you spare a moment – or delegate the task to a colleague – to ponder how mavericks can be double-edged swords. Or just plain liabilities. (Or perhaps d): analogies are a useful way of citing a case you’ve already decided to make, rather than a way of challenging your own thinking.) Mavericks can still be team players, but they can also pull  a team in a different direction more than working with it.

But  this is still looking at the whole idea from one angle: team formation and team roles and contributions. The freshest thinking that I came across – Ken Thompson’s Natures four teamwork systems, published at the Bioteams website – also comes from a biological angle, but looks not at the team doing the work, but the work the team is doing and the interactions involved. Sometimes we actually work solo, sometimes in groups (no division of labour as people all do the same thing at the same time – which he calls crowdwork), sometimes in partitioned tasks (division of labour but in a workflow scenario: we do A, then you do B – which he calls groupwork), and sometimes in team tasks – different people do different things at the same time, and the requirement for co-ordination (and co-operation) is accordingly much higher. Only the last of these truly is teamwork.

As Thompson comments:

Each is type of teamwork appropriate for certain tasks – a bioteam uses them all and in the right context

  • Solowork is a valid and useful activity in teams – in certain situations it is simply the most efficient way to get things done
  • Crowdwork may point to poor team role definition which wastes team members time
  • Groupwork lends itself well to asynchronous communication methods
  • Teamwork (in the biological sense) seems to be relatively rare in organisational teams. It requires more co-ordination between team members because different individuals need to do different things at the same time.

Quite apart from being one in the eye for crowdsourcing (with apologies to the term’s coiner, Jeff Howe – inevitably in Wired – although it’s an idea not without its potential downsides), this begs some important questions for team builders and their facilitators. Not least in asking what is the actual nature of the ‘teamworking’ that a group of people undertakes, and how far that affects how they need to adjust to each other and work collaboratively to define the most effective contribution. As Ken Thompson’s article intro points out:

A bioteam knows how and when to use all four forms – the choice depends on the specific task at hand.”

Sounds like a whole new learning objective to add into the next teamwork session to me …