Teams debunked: There is an I

I participated in an organizational event that included a guest speaker talking about the importance of team work.  I’m not going to name the speaker because it doesn’t matter – he was a nice guy, his presentation and sports anecdotes resonated and entertained the group, and his message was a good one; however, he said the one thing that I had wished he hadn’t:

“There is no “I” in team”

That’s right, he went there. This could have only been topped by him mentioning Zappos, which he also did.

What, might you ask, is wrong with saying that there is no “I” in team?  Isn’t it a positive message? Doesn’t it make sense?

Of course it makes sense – any kid in grade 2 with auto-correct can see that there is no letter “i” in team.  I mean, unless you work at Apple, in which case, they might call them iTeams, but I digress…

Rest assured that I recognize that it’s only a saying.  I truly do understand the clever meaning that success is achieved by the accomplishments of the group and not those of any single individual.

Here’s the thing though –  a team is a sum of the parts of which it’s made.  That means that if I’m on the team…then the team has a “me”, and it has a “you”, and a “her” and possibly a “oh great…him”.  And at some point each of these “parts” is going leverage their knowledge and strengths (which is probably why they are on the team) to move the team forward.

And quite possibly, at some point, each of these “parts” is going to do something that slows things down…whether it’s conducting one more analysis, re-formatting the presentation, debating a point, or even just checking-on for a day or two.

As a team member, I have a vested interest in the project succeeding and will likely to do what it takes to get it done – this will obviously include my part, and if necessary, helping someone else with theirs.  That’s teamwork, right? No one gets left behind.

I’m not alone in thinking this – apparently everyone has experienced this.

Don’t believe me, then ask this of your next candidate: “Tell me about a time when you were part of a team and did more than was expected of you” (or alternately, “Tell me about a time when you overcame obstacles to get a job done”)…and see if you don’t get the following answer (or a close fascimile):

In university I was assigned to a group project and at the outset we divided up the work evenly among the members.  Most of us worked very hard to get their part done; however, there was one member who went AWAL – we tried to get in contact with them…called, texted, left messages, but never heard anything.  We advised the prof of the issues and we were told to resolve it ourselves.  I took it upon myself to complete the missing member’s part – putting in lots of extra time – so that we could hand in a complete project on time.  The team ended up doing really well.

Just once, I want to interview someone who admits to being the kid that went AWAL.  I really want to know their story and why they participated in all those group projects…were they a mole that profs planted in each group so that students would have a legitimate answer when they go to interviews.  Or did they just like to screw up the team.

My long winded point is that a team is not made up of equal parts – there needs to be a range and variety of skill sets, working styles, and personalities, which pretty much guarantees that egos and pathological tendencies are bound to emerge.

When this happens and we are trying to motivate teams to get back on track, maybe we should be telling them that sometimes there is an “i” in team…you just need to know where to find it and how to work around it.



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