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Calling out Our Unproductive Obsession with Teamwork

In many organizations, teamwork is an unchallenged concept. It's a corporate value, a key criterion for personal development and promotion, and to be seen as “not a team player” can be a kiss of death for one’s career. It seems as though more teamwork is proposed as the answer to every business problem. But what if teamwork is the problem, and not the solution?

According to my company’s own research with hundreds of clients (global businesses operating in complex, matrixed environments), an over-reliance on teamwork costs, on average, about $20,000 per year for every managerial or professional person they employ. It delays critical decisions, undermines empowerment, and creates about one full day per week of lost time.

We asked 1,600 participants of our virtual teams and matrix management training programs about their teamwork experiences. Their responses are eye opening:

  • The average respondent is a member of five teams, each with an average of 12 members.
  • The average respondent spends 38 percent of their time (nearly two days per week) in meetings and 53 percent of the content is irrelevant to them.
  • They receive an average of 58 e-mails a day and deem 57 percent of these as unnecessary.

The regional board of a global telecommunications company was having management meetings every two weeks, which consisted of full reviews from each of the functional and geographic heads. They realized that much of the information being discussed was irrelevant for most of the attendees. For example, as a sales director listened to a manufacturing review, they were only interested in whether there were supply problems. A re-engineered meeting process where each individual was given three slides allowed an improved business overview of their area to see whether they were hitting the key metrics. A second slide was a summary of any decisions they had made in their area that had an implication on other people around the table, and a third slide showed where they could share something about which they were particularly proud.

This process reduced the time for functional and geographic reviews from 45 minutes per attendee to seven minutes per attendee. Total meeting time for all attendees was reduced from nearly seven hours to one. Board members used the time they saved to dedicate more time to issues such as strategy, people development and learning. They also adopted this model to help reduce, or even eliminate, other regularly scheduled meetings.

A manufacturing director would never accept an operation that creates 50 percent scrap. An R&D project for a new product that fails half of the time is a colossal failure. The same expectations should exist for meeting and communication effectiveness.

Many CEOs are looking to increase integration and collaboration across the business through cross functional and virtual teams, sharing best practices and even through some form of matrix organization structure. At the same time, none of them want to increase the number of unnecessary teams, meetings and e-mails. How do we become both connected and effective?

Part of the solution lies in being more specific about the form of cooperation that is needed. The word “team” is often used to describe the entire company (thousands of people), a department (hundreds of people), and much smaller groups (two to ten people) working on a common activity. Clearly these are not the same forms of cooperation.

A team is where a small number of people with complementary skills come together to work intensively on a collaborative goal, such as multidisciplinary problem-solving. We call this “spaghetti team working” on account of people being densely interdependent. It requires people to work together at the same time, and possibly the same place (synchronous working). Everyone is connected to everyone else. If an organization is spread across time zones and multiple locations, this is a particularly expensive and difficult way to cooperate.

An alternative is a simpler “hub and spoke” model where individuals with similar skills are coordinated by a common leader. Individuals are connected to the center hub only. Groups are much simpler to organize, and communication tends to be much more relevant and satisfying as it mainly takes the form of one-to-one conversations.

Sure, the deeply connected “spaghetti” structure is sometimes needed. But there are many tasks where an empowered individual or a loosely connected group can get the job done much more effectively.

Bottom line: there is such a thing as too much cooperation and it can cause delay, dissatisfaction and wasted budget. Everyone has had the experience of irrelevant meetings, and been frustrated when necessary actions are delayed due to internal bureaucracy. When that happens, CEOs shouldn’t hesitate to consider if the concept of teamwork has become too ingrained in the company’s values and operations. Determine if there is a simpler way of cooperating that is effective and empowering. When it comes to collaboration, sometimes less is more.


Kevan Hall is CEO of Global Integration (, specializing in matrix management, virtual teams and global working training and consulting. He is the author of Making the Matrix Work – How Matrix Managers Engage People and Cut Through Complexity and Speed Lead – Faster, Simpler Ways to Manage People, Projects and Teams in Complex Companies.




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