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We already know, from last week, that teamwork is not just a human skill. The animal kingdom is filled with really impressive (and sometimes downright amazing) examples of teamwork. Ant cities. Bee colonies. Starling murmurations. To see these tiny creatures working cooperatively with the same synchronicity of a well-trained military unit and the most beautiful water ballet performers should make everyone’s head puzzle in wonder. It takes a lot of practice, communication and concerted effort for humans to work as a team seamlessly, and yet bees, ants and birds – with brains the size of grains of sand and pebbles –all work in lock-step without practice or effort and with a seemingly limited ability to communicate. And yet many companies can’t get departments to work cohesively or collaboratively. Why?
First, employees need to understand that cooperation and teamwork is good not only for the company – which it is – but also for the individual. Case in point.
Teamwork and Chess
Russians — including countries that were part of the former Soviet Union – dominated chess in the second half of the 20th century and even up to the present. The first “official” world chess champion was Mikhail Botvinnik in 1948. He was Russian. For the next 60+ years, most of the top players in the world have been from Russia (or a former Soviet nation) with three exceptions. American Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in 1972 and kept the title through 1975. Viswanathan Anand of India held the title from 2000 to 2002 and 2007-2013. And currently Magnus Carlsen of Norway has had the title of Grand Master from 2013 to the present.
Chess originated in India. People have been playing early forms of chess since the 600s AD, and by the 1400s it had spread throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. Its popularity has remained constant ever since. So how is it that the Russians have dominated world chess for nearly three quarters of a century (far beyond any other countries that had a deep heritage in playing chess)? Even now, Russians represent 25 of the top 100 chess players of the world, even though they haven’t had a world champion since Vladimir Kramnik in 2006-2007. Why are Russians such good chess players? There are two answers.
First, the USSR built a deep support system to help the students of the game from a very early age. Those with an aptitude for the game were identified at an early age and nurtured, helping their skill and experience to grow in a very conducive environment. In the Soviet Union, chess schools and coaches popped up everywhere. Chess was treated like an actual academic subject to be studied and learned. No other country made such a serious commitment to chess. As a result, Russians developed some of the brightest chess talent that ever lived, which would have otherwise remained hidden and untapped. It is this largely academic and intellectual approach for learning chess that continues to pervade Russian culture today and has even bled into other domains such as computer technology. That’s why there are a large number of highly technical computer labs in Russia but no really large computer companies. And anyone downloading a “chess engine” from the web will find that 75% of all chess engines are coded in Russia.
Second, and more importantly, the Soviet national chess strategy was starkly different to the approach taken by chess players from other nations, especially nations where competition is rewarded over cooperation. Because it was government supported, Russian players worked as a team. Teammates went over games together. They studied endgames and suggested strategies. They competed against one on the board, but studied chess cooperatively. And clearly that approach produced incredible results, not only ensuring that more talent developed but also that top talent helped one another. It was a matter of political and intellectual pride for Russians – as a whole – to do well on the national stage. It was this spirit of cooperation, collaboration and teamwork that put and has kept Russians at the top of the field of chess in the modern world. Individual Russians learned that while teamwork helps the overall nation succeed, it also had its own individual benefits. Top players earned more, lived better and were more respected. Being part of a successful team was good for the “company” – in this case the Russian government – and it was also really good for individual players too.
Teamwork in Business
Therein lies the magic. Everyone on the team has to buy into helping the team and doing what is best for the overall organization. With bees, birds and ants, it is hard-wired into their survival instincts. But for people who work for a business, it must be taught, explained, communicated and reinforced. Why do all that? Because, for a variety of reasons, teamwork is key to the success of all businesses.
Teamwork among a diverse group of people typically generates new, fresh ideas, which are invaluable in today’s competitive business environment. Bringing together differing ages, backgrounds, skill sets, and experience levels of people on a team means there are a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. Teamwork also increases efficiency by allowing an organization to split difficult tasks into manageable, logical portions that can be completed faster. In doing this, it ensures that the person with the most skills in a particular area is working on that task. It also ensures that the level of quality for a project has the best that everyone on the team has to offer. And, it increases group cohesion by allowing everyone to work together for a single purpose and for the benefit of the company.
Also, when individual employees work together as part of a team, there’s a sense of self-monitoring that isn’t present when they work by themselves. They experience self-correcting behavior, reducing the frequency with which a manager needs to get involved. That reduces the burden of people management on the leader and give team members more autonomy.
When it comes to problem solving, the viable solutions that a team can generate is exponentially larger than the solutions generated by one employee. A wealth of possible solutions affords the opportunity for faster innovation. That can mean the difference between a business getting ahead or falling behind.
Moreover, teamwork is not just good for the company. It is also good for the employees. Teamwork boosts morale, making everyone on the team feel they are contributing to a successful result and have something special to offer. It also helps employees form stronger working relationships. Those relationships can grow to include mutual trust. In turn, this produces better communication, more support, increased motivation and greater cooperation.
Also, working as a team allows employees to experience successes and failures in a supportive environment. Everyone on the team learns together what to do and what not to do in the future. It provides insights into how to get things done more effectively the next time around. This allows employees to learn from one another without undue risk. It becomes a safe zone for colleagues to grow and pull together. And, the encouragement and support employees gain from working together makes accomplishments all the sweeter. The benefits of teamwork then bleed into a renewed sense of purpose and confidence that benefits each individual employee as well. This turns into a virtuous cycle in which accomplishments breed success and success breeds accomplishments.
Real-World Examples of Teamwork Working
Just as with a majestic starling murmuration, sometimes seeing is believing. Let’s look at a couple of examples of teamwork that really transformed the world. We’ll start with a company whose name today has become a common verb in the English language… “google it.” Sergey Brin and Larry Page, founders of Google, together with Eric Schmidt, CEO and Omid Kordestani, SVP of Business Development, created the most popular search-engine technology that ranks results based on keywords and how many other sites link to a page. Bring and Page had met at Stanford and started working together when Page asked Brin to help develop his doctoral thesis. They had a common goal and chose strategically to stay lean for as long as possible. The team began working together from Page’s dorm room at Stanford and then later a garage. When they were ready to turn their brainchild into a business, they brought in Schmidt – a tech legend — to run the company. And they hired Kordestani to handle sales. They were small, lean but working in brilliant sync. The rest is history.
If that just looks like an example of genius, not teamwork, consider the teamwork that went into creating Java Script, a revolutionary programming language at the time, by a company that already existed and sold other successful products. Programmers Patrick Naughton, Arthur Van Hoff and James Gosling, as well as business development guru Mike Sheridan and chief scientist Bill Joy all worked for Sun Microsystems. Together, they created a platform-independent Java programming language added interactivity to the then-static Web. But what triggered this stroke of teamwork and deep innovation was a 12-page critique of Sun Microsystems (by its own employees) that served as a wake-up call to step up innovation and focus on the consumer. To tap into their creativity and work as a true team, they worked 100-hour work weeks in an office far from the Sun campus. The assignment was known, at first, as the Stealth Project because it was so off-the-grid. The result was that they produced a language that stood apart from Sun’s other moneymaking endeavors and revolutionized programming. Established in 1982, Sun Microsystems was sold in 2010 to Oracle for $7.4 Billion.
Real teamwork can dramatically change a company’s valuation and it can even change the world. Indeed, there are countless examples of companies where teamwork truly made the dream work… as per the cliché. Disney. NASA. The Manhattan Project. Wikipedia. Toyota. The list goes on and on. So what does it take for individuals to work as a team? The research seems to indicate that it boils down to four components:
- A compelling direction
- A strong structure
- A supportive context
- A shared mindset
For more about these, stay tuned next week as we dive into the deep end of the team building pool. Don’t miss it.
Quote of the Week
“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” Andrew Carnegie
© 2021, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.