Free-Range Teamwork

If I had the opportunity to address every manager in the world, this presentation would be my appeal…

Teams vs. Teamwork

There is a sharp distinction between ‘being on a team’ and ‘teamwork’.

‘Teams’ are defined henceforth as groups with defined members and (usually) defined roles. I propose that our ideas about teams are largely institutionally defined and culturally reified.

‘Teamwork’ is the execution and accomplishment of some task through cooperation, partnership, and trust. Defined as ‘mutual effort towards an end’, teamwork is universal and timeless.

Think of the distinction this way: our distant ancestors coordinated their actions and cooperated together to hunt wooly mammoths — this was teamwork — but they did not have staff meetings on Tuesday mornings, elect treasurers, do ropes courses, or go to staff retreats — the kinds of things that teams often do today. We might also juxtapose a sports ‘team’ that shares a name, coach, and logo, with the actual ‘teamwork’ its members exhibit on a field. Simply: ‘team’ and ‘teamwork’ are two very different things.

My thesis: You don’t necessarily need to be ‘on a team’ in order to reap the benefits of ‘teamwork’. Furthermore, perhaps counterintuitively, ‘teams’ as we conceive of them can sometimes be detrimental to ‘teamwork’ itself. What if our normative ideas about the structure and practice of teams get in the way of actually getting things done together?

Let’s unpack this idea some more.

Teams inherently absorb and divest potential energy

As soon as a group self-identifies as a team, the task of managing the team begins leeching energy. Who is in charge? How is authority designated? How is ‘membership’ managed? What mechanisms must be enshrined to assure accountability for individual’s actions on the behalf of the whole?

Think of it this way: once you are on a committee, you have surrendered a not insignificant portion of your energy to the committee structure itself. At least in part, this represents a diversion of energy away from the purpose for which the committee was formed in the first place.

Certain degrees of inefficiency are actually beneficial, especially when appropriately scaled to the potential severity and repercussions of the group’s decisions and actions. For example, we want the decision-makers in government to be highly cautious and deliberative in their work. Representative democracy is famously ‘inefficient’ because governments are like teams that spend immoderate energy arguing about the structures, rules, and parameters of the ‘team’ itself, but this obsession with self-scrutiny generally serves the longterm sustainability of the nation. However, the problem with replicating such bureaucratic processes — or, ‘reporting structures’, as we say — in every subcommittee within an organization is that we needlessly replicate the inefficiencies without necessarily gaining a net benefit.

Teams create meetings, which are typically inefficient

Imagine that all meetings were ‘costed’ by dividing the salaries of everyone present in the room by the duration of the meeting. Imagine that a calculation of every meeting’s ‘price tag’ was printed at the top of the agenda. Imagine if instead of wearing a Fitbit, you wore a MeetingBit that tracked the days, months, and years you spend listening to other people hear themselves talk and ask questions that have already been answered. These practices might prompt more efficient meetings, yes, but they would probably also prompt us to question the value of our meetings themselves.

The best thing about teams meetings is that they allow collective decision-making… and this is also the worst thing about team meetings. Most meetings are only efficient as the least competent person at the table. Why? Meetings are all too often about coercing foolish people to make wise decisions, an effort requiring no small exertion.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that every manager and director who calls a meeting ought be required to justify the event. If we grant the general inefficiencies of meetings, we should demand that our leaders demonstrate that there is no other viable way to disseminate information, reach consensus, brainstorm a solution, or coordinate efforts than to physically stick everyone in a room with an itemized agenda. Meetings only make sense when meetings are, objectively speaking, the only option. In too many cases, meetings are the least creative option.

Just think about it: if you have competent, high-capacity, focussed people working below you, dragging them into meetings is only a disruption their work. If you have inept and distracted subordinates, why do you suppose that pooling their collective confusion and apathy in one place is going to help anything? Meetings, in any case, should be more like a last resorts or special occasions, and certainly not weekly impositions, unless it is otherwise imperative. There are surely more creative ways for managers to fulfill their responsibilities without systematically interrupting everyone every Tuesday morning.

‘Teamwork’ without ‘teams’?

I’d wager to guess that the most meaningful collaborations of your life have been with people who simply shared a vision. You came together for a seemingly self-evident cause: a purpose that held interest, meaning, and reward for everyone involved. Sure, the personal motivations of the collaborators were diverse and multilayered, but the cause itself became your common ground.

But there was not only a cause, there was also a person: someone who invited you to participate. They trusted you to act on your word and make reasonable decisions. You woke up one day and realized that you were part of something bigger than you — not really a ‘team’, but something more like a network. You realized that you, too, possessed the power to invite and entrust others to participate. You realized that leadership runs on a currency of respect and trust, not hierarchy and rank. You realized that teamwork, ultimately, is about working alongside others, not for them. Indeed, it is usually within teamwork that leaders discover themselves, not so much by being corporately ordained to the rank of ‘team leader’.

Defenders of teams and meetings might point out that there is nothing in the haphazardly decentralized ‘mess’ described above designed to build consensus, exchange pertinent information, or intentionally inspire a sense of ‘shared ownership’. Even more alarming, there are no formal channels for accountability. There are no quarterly reports. There are no management gurus. To the corporate view, it looks like chaos indeed. But this is unsurprising, since traditional ‘corporate team logic’ assumes that every check and balance must be ‘implemented’ as a reviewable program. What I like to call ‘free-range teamwork’, on the other hand, is unabashedly self-selecting — the people who can’t work together simply go their separate ways.

Businesses and corporations are desperate to believe that teamwork can be contrived, or at least facilitated. But how many times have you heard someone walk out of a management-organized program or staff meeting and exclaim, “That was great–I really feel like part of the team now”? No, you heard this sentiment expressed around the water-cooler a few days after you and some colleagues happened to go out for drinks. I think it is fair to say that teamwork quite often happens in spite of team structures.

In praise of free-range teamwork

I appreciate that this ‘model’ would be tricky to translate for corporate economics and business contexts. I appreciate that the division of labour is endemic to virtually all institutions and corporations. I appreciate that arbitrarily devised teams are just part of life in the labour market. It’s hard to imagine many companies hiring ‘free-range employees’ without a set job description, just to see what collaborations unfold. In the corporate world, ‘free-range’ is a synonym for ‘rogue’.

Subsequently, this boils down to an intensely personal approach to leadership. Free-range teamwork simply means prioritizing opportunities to work with people who have resonance and chemistry: it means coming together to get something done, above coming together because somehow all of our names ended up on the same list. Or in other words, it means working with the people you trust instead of trying to trust the people you are assigned to work with.

Discerning the value of teamwork as distinct from the fabricated structure of teams has dramatically shifted my own ideas about leadership. Previously, when I sought to incite movement on some project or initiative, my efforts mirrored the modus operandi of the corporate world around me: I would attempt to recruit and organize ‘team members’. I would try to pitch my vision in an inspirational way, ask people to ‘sign up’ for the cause, hound people to ‘meet’ and formulate a collective strategy. All the usual trappings followed: mission and vision statements, meetings and delegations, RSVPs and regrets, and the ever present sense of trying to ‘herd’ people along.

Inasmuch as it is possible, I’m done with teams. As exclusively as possible, I want to work with individuals. Amazing individuals. And, yes, I want to work with as many of these amazing people as possible to accomplish the task at hand. What makes us effective, as individuals working together, is precisely our teamwork — not that we are officially on any team. It is sometimes the absence of ‘the team’ that liberates people for effective teamwork.

Working with individuals towards a goal requires extensive and robust communication. In a free-range environment, it is incumbent on everyone to CC everyone else. Failure to communicate and translate knowledge for one another is failure to participate: people can’t trust you if they don’t know what you are doing. This requires seeing everyone as active players on the field, not merely as observers on the periphery who happen to be wearing the same jersey. As we have said, this is self-selecting: those who choose not to interface and collaborate with the informal network simply decline to do so of their own free will.

Perhaps one of the most scary and liberating aspects of such teamwork is that there is no one carrying the big stick. There is no recourse to discipline structures or annual performance reviews — which means that trust is literally everything. Mutual respect is the bedrock of each individual node or partnership in the network. But herein lies the power of teamwork: it frees individuals to be individuals — to acknowledge their own personal motivations for pursuing a collective goal. (On the contrary, when you put people on a ‘team’ and give them a title, you are essentially asking them to align themselves to a brand — your brand. ‘Free-range’ defies branding and assumes autonomy.)

Conclusion

I am not advocating the end of all bureaucracy. Terms of references, memorandums, and Robert’s Rules of Order are necessary and helpful tools in so many contexts. I am no libertarian advocating for a ‘free-range approach’ to natural resources or national defence. Sometimes forcing people who are ideologically polarized to work with one another — that is, politics — require us to place a bit more value in process than agility. Red tape is important.

What I am saying is that whenever possible I personally prefer working with people as people, not as managerially defined units.

I don’t really want to spend my life sitting around boardrooms watching people awkwardly avert their gaze from one another as the chair pleads, “Ok, so who will follow up with this report?” Instead, you’ll find me sitting at the pub with an ad hoc, ragtag posse of people, whose ambitions, projects, and personal investments just happen to align at this point of collaborative convergence. We work together because we have found one another working in the same direction, not because someone has convinced us to join a task force. Free-range teamwork isn’t about pitching visions and recruiting members, it’s about finding the people who already ‘get it’.

I am done with ‘herding’ people. Increasingly, my ‘leadership strategy’ simply boils down to finding other micro-ambitious people who are personally invested in things that I believe are important too. Teamwork is the thing that happens when we find one another.

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