The Wall Street Journal Home Page
Article Search  Quotes & Research
Advanced Search Symbol(s) Name
 
   As of Wednesday, September 29, 2004      
The Print Edition
Today's Edition
Past Editions
Features
Columnists
In-Depth Reports
Discussions
Company Research
Markets Data Center
Site Map
Corrections
My Online Journal
Portfolio
Personalize My News
E-Mail Setup
My Account/Billing
RSS Feeds
Customer Service
The Online Journal
The Print Edition
Contact Us
Help
Advertiser Links
BT presents an archive of stories on Managing Connectivity
Investor Resource Center
Lind-Waldock - Commodity Broker
Covad Broadband. Now with rebates up to $898.
FREE Stock Market Outlook. Download Here!
Add the topic of this page to your personalized Home page.
CUBICLE CULTURE
By JARED SANDBERG


Click to email this article Click to email this article Click to format this article for printing Click to format this article for printing View a list of most popular articles on our site
Go to Page RECENT COLUMNS
September 22
 Sad Tales From Half-Wall Cubes
September 8
 To-Do Lists Can Hinder the Doing
August 25
 Addicted to Work, Even on Vacation
MORE
SEARCH PAST COLUMNS
Search for these words:
 
 
Display all columns
 
advertisement

Some Ideas Are So Bad
That Only Team Efforts
Can Account for Them
September 29, 2004; Page B1

Years ago, when a civilian worker at one of the nation's largest Air Force bases was working for a general, she watched as a team was formed to come up with a better system to handle the mail.

Mail to the base included letters from multi-starred generals and directives that had deadlines. The "process improvement team," also known as a PIT, had a roster of middle managers, mostly civilians, who spent the better part of a month coming up with a plan.

But instead of streamlining the process, they complicated it. "I was horrified," says the woman. "There used to be eight steps; now there were 19." Each piece of official mail was viewed by a greater number of managers before getting to its intended recipient, she says, enabling the mail to be lost at home or in the bathroom, or covered with spills from someone's breakfast. And ponies could have delivered it faster. The lag between the first manager who saw a piece of mail and the person who had to act on it was two weeks, she says.

Questioning the team would have amounted to heresy, so she kept quiet until a year later, when her general emerged from his office and bellowed, "What the hell is happening to my mail?" Once enlightened, he changed everything on the spot.

"So many things that a team comes to consensus on are monumentally goofy," says the civilian worker. But she adds that she is nonetheless a "true believer in teams." Her current job at the base: teaching interpersonal communication, including how teams can work together better.

Unfortunately, despite plenty of research cautioning against the knee-jerk idolatry of teams in the workplace, these group efforts are still sacrosanct. Sure, no company could survive without teams, but many companies could prosper without some of them. Teamwork's underlying assumption is that two heads are better than one, with the math looking something like this: 1 head + 1 head = 2 heads. In reality, teamwork looks more like a multiplication function: 1 head x 1 head = 1 head. Worse, consider what happens in a team full of half-wits: half-wit x half-wit = one-quarter wit.

The shortchanging is similar to the group think illustrated by the so-called Abilene Paradox. In that parable about how individuals reach agreement, a family is happily playing dominoes when someone comes up with the bad idea of going to Abilene for dinner. Except that everyone thinks all the others believe it's a good idea, so they set aside their opposition to the long, hot, dusty trip to get lousy cafeteria food, and they go anyway.

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, says that teams represent an effort to pool diverse skills and knowledge, but they typically fail in three ways. First, people don't recognize that the interesting and relevant information they possess is interesting and relevant, so they don't share it. Second, people often overlook the fact that colleagues have opposing interests. ("Layoffs? They can't come from my group.") Third, people withhold information deliberately.

Teams often work better when they have at least some conflict, particularly if there is more than one dissenter, says Michael Useem, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "A single devil's advocate or whistleblower faces a really uphill struggle," he says. "But if you have one ally, that is enormously strengthening."

Just don't expect Carmen Johnson, a manager with a telecommunications company, to be one of those dissenters. She routinely toes the line if a superior on a team wants to do something a certain way. When she's asked for her opinion, she says, "I give it hesitantly, watching for the most powerful on the team to give approval because if they don't, I've got to change my story real quick."

On the other hand, some teams are tyrannies dressed up as democracies. When Jim Stagg was a graphic designer 10 years ago, he was part of a five-person team that worked well together. But after one team member left, the boss found a replacement candidate he was determined to hire. His question to the others: "Do any of you see a reason NOT to hire the candidate?"

To Mr. Stagg, who lived in Atlanta, that was "a lot like asking if there's any reason not to drive to Dothan, Ala., to pick up a chocolate shake," he says. "Why would you drive from Atlanta to Dothan for a shake? Aren't there plenty of shakes here? And why would you ask if there's a reason not to do it?"

Despite the team's pleas for more candidates and more time to reach a decision, the boss's choice was hired. And within a year, most of the rest of the team had resigned.

At the other end of the spectrum, team democracy can seem like anarchy. Derek Kirk, an aerospace-company technician, attended a management meeting with a psychologist to assess emotional problems among staffers. But one member of his team soon veered into talking about his own personal problems. While Mr. Kirk pleaded with the man to stay on message, another participant argued it was important "to hear the whole story."

Later, with no team solutions to offer the other participants, Mr. Kirk winged his presentation, getting this time-honored advice from the psychologist: "She basically said, 'You gotta live with it,' " he recalls.

 E-mail me at mailto:%20jared.sandberg@wsj.com. To see past columns, go to CareerJournal.com.
 
Click to format this article for printing Click to format this article for printing  View a list of most popular articles on our site Find out about distributing multiple copies of this article Find out about distributing multiple copies of this article 
Sponsored by


 
Return To Top

  Contact Us   Help   E-Mail Setup   Customer Service: Online | Print

Privacy Policy   Subscriber Agreement   Mobile Devices   RSS Feeds   News Licensing   About Dow Jones

DowJones