Corporate Practice

As managers we work hard at choosing the best individuals for a job. We write job descriptions, conduct searches, and choose the best people we can find (the best educated, the most experienced, the best trained) for the roles in our groups. But having the best individuals doesn’t automatically create better teams. Managers are constantly challenged with the inefficient and inferior results that develop by people working as individuals, not sharing information, and not collaborating with colleagues. Conducting work in silos ultimately hurts innovation.

Why is collaboration so hard, why is it an unnatural way of working for most individuals? Kent Beck has a perspective on the situation in his book Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change. As Beck views it, the influences for individual performance start with our very early academic training and the typical reward systems found in the work environment:

It’s hard to collaborate. Our whole education system is tuned to individual achievement. If you work with someone on a project, the teacher calls it cheating and punishes you. The reward systems in most companies, with individual evaluations and raises (often cast as a zero sum game), also encourages individual thinking.

(Quoted from page 152 in the first edition of the book.)

The analogy (or thought experiment) that I sometimes like to use is about a professional baseball team. In the Majors players are selected to be the best in their positions. The process of scouting players, training them through the minors, and bringing them up to the Major League teams has been very well developed over multiple decades. The players chosen for the Majors are the best and the most skilled in their individual positions; the best pitchers, catchers, fielders, etc. You can’t find better individual players than those that are chosen to play in the Major Leagues.

Yet, the manager of a baseball team requires practice. Then the question that develops is, if the players are the best and the most skilled, why is practice necessary? And the answer, which isn’t immediately obvious to many people, is that practice is necessary to make a better team. Practice is working together, collaborating, allowing a second baseman to know the throwing habits of a catcher when trying to throw-out a runner stealing base, for example. Practice is when a first baseman learns the nuances in the step of a pitcher when he is about to throw to first base. Or when a shortstop learns to cover for the second baseman who is fielding a right-side grounder. The perspective on practice and what teams do during practice is what makes a baseball manager great, what creates great teams, and ultimately what distinguishes one team from another in the Major Leagues.

If you connect with that analogy, if you find that you are dwelling on the idea more as a thought experiment, there is one last question to consider to tie it together with the corporate world: What is the analogy to “practice” in a company made-up of knowledge workers?

“Meetings” in a corporate setting are the equivalent of practice. Meetings imply collaboration because they require more than one person. Meetings are where perspective develops across teams, where information is shared and judgment is improved across individuals, where people learn the nuances in the capabilities (or limitations) of other individuals. Meetings, even if viewed as ad-hoc discussions between two individuals, are where better teams are ultimately created. And like practice in baseball, meetings are a manager’s best tool to drive collaboration, to create higher performing teams, and ultimately to develop excellence in an organization.

Note, this posting was motivated by Issac Sacolick and the Social, Agile, and Transformation Blog. See Issac’s post and the dialog that developed in the comments section for additional background:

When Ogranizational Silos Hurt Innovation


1 Comment

  1. In sports, the true collaboration occurs when a small group of teammates work on a play together. This could be a drop pass in hockey (2-3 players), a give and go in basketball, the hit and run in baseball, etc.

    I think the same is true in Business. Meetings are a good place to make sure people speak up and hear other point of view. But true collaboration and most innovation is when 2-3 folks with different skills work together on specific challenges. Management can reinforce this by insuring larger meetings include people from different departments and encourage cross team follow-ups.

    Thanks for the reference to my post!

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