Teamwork Sucks: Here’s a Framework for Fixing It

Most people who work white-collar jobs must work in teams; it simply comes with the territory. Unfortunately, many smart people despise group work. I might guess that this behavior stems from grade school, when smart students realize they function at a much higher level than their peers. Often, their peers will become free-riders and reap the benefits of the smart student’s work without contributing value to the group effort. This turns smart people off of group work unless their teams consist of equally smart people.

However, the root of people’s aversion to teamwork is not the subject of this article. Instead, I aim to fix the inefficiencies that teamwork generates. The core assumption of the framework I developed is that team efficiency is a function of collaborative friction and task interdependency.

Collaborative friction refers to the difficulty of getting people to work together effectively; high friction can stem from ideological stubbornness, incompetence, cognitive bias, inability to compromise, inability to debate effectively, and more. Task interdependency is the level to which the various tasks on a project depend on each others’ completion. For example, a high interdependency task might depend on the successful completion of three prerequisite tasks.

Below, I will examine the framework’s scenarios in order of worst to best and offer some tips to fix them.

Teamwork Efficiency Matrix
Here’s a novel look at teamwork efficiency in convenient matrix format.
High Friction, High Interdependency: Gridlock

Teamwork Efficiency: Gridlock

When teams experience high collaborative friction along with high task interdependency, you generally see gridlock. In a state of gridlock, nothing happens. As various tasks are inextricably linked, project progress cannot occur without a viable coordination mechanism. Furthermore, if team members cannot find ways to agree, debate, and compromise efficiently, task interdependency cannot be resolved to create a coordination mechanism and enable progress.

A team can fix gridlock by decreasing collaborative friction, decreasing task interdependency, or both. In order to make collaboration more frictionless, you might move to using a chat platform like Slack instead of email. Also, you might cut down both the number of meetings and the number of participants in those meetings (a 1-hour, 8-person meeting doesn’t waste 1 hour, it wastes 8 labor-hours; read the book Rework for more on this). We will discuss decreasing interdependency under the Traffic Light section below.

High Friction, Low Interdependency: Silo

Teamwork Efficiency: Silo

When teams have high friction but low interdependency, project progress becomes siloed. One worker can easily complete the tasks assigned to him or her, but cannot find a way to integrate his/her work product with that of other team members. If there’s persistent friction barring collaboration, it becomes virtually impossible to work as a team; each silo might contain phenomenal work product, but the pieces cannot come together into a meaningful whole.

Teams can fix siloed projects by implementing an efficient coordination mechanism. Whether that refers to a new way to assign tasks, review work output, or make decisions as a team, averting coordination failure is critical to moving work out of silos.

Low Friction, High Interdependency: Traffic Light

Teamwork Efficiency: Traffic Light

When teams face low collaborative friction, but high task interdependency, they end up at a traffic light. While driving, the traffic light is a simple coordination mechanism (it tells people when to stop, slow, and go). However, because driving is a very interdependent task (you can’t drive through the car in front of you, thus you’re dependent on it moving before you do), drivers are still slowed down. Teams work in much the same way: even with a coordination mechanism in place, task interdependency forces team members to wait on each other before they can progress.

A good way to rectify this is via the subject of my first article ever: Time Management in Complex Tasks. As I said then, the way to decrease interdependency is as follows:

Most teams that try to decompose their projects do so improperly; they do not arrive at lots of simple projects but many small complex projects, which creates yet more coordination failures and switching costs. In order to decompose a complex project, you must refine tasks until they are no longer novel, no longer require intensive resource and brainpower, and no longer require a team.

Low Friction, Low Interdependency: Rowing Team

Teamwork Efficiency: Rowing Team

This is the optimal state for teamwork efficiency. The team has minimized friction and interdependency meaning that they can both collaborate and complete tasks efficiently. In that state of affairs, project progress is what matters most. Office politics, ego, and poor planning must necessarily fall away to place focus on the project itself.

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