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  • Writer's pictureSam Birkett

Are we always stronger together? A lesson from down the pub.

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

I was reading an article, which is a few years old now, on HBR: Stop wasting money on Team Building by Carlos Valdes-Dapena. An interesting read for someone with a team building, or as I term it, a team experience business; yet I agree with the core point the article is making.

Carlos is now the CEO of Corporate Collaboration Resources, and he wrote a book based on his time working and studying teams at Mars. I don't contest the idea at the heart of his writing, many team building instances can fail to either engage the whole room, or provide a basis on which to build effective future collaboration, yet I believe others can. Whilst Carlos uses the provocative title to his article, I don't think he's necessarily saying team building can't work, he's examining where it should start to achieve true collaboration. Crucially, he's also addressing the difference in motivating the individual to be a better team player, and motivating the team.

I leave it up to you to judge if I have captured the spirit of Carlos' main thesis in my example below, or whether I'm wide of the mark. What I have tried to do is illustrate his thinking on collaboration and ask the question...Which tasks and projects are better when worked on alone, and which are better when worked on in collaboration?

Let’s use a pub quiz to illustrate my answer to the question.

You could say that work is like an ongoing challenge, undertaken with a group of people brought together for their particular set of skills. You have 'dynamic' feelings for this group, you like them, they annoy you, you respect them, they don't listen to you, you have a laugh together, someone speaks out of turn. Much like a pub quiz team!

You all have your own individual areas of specialism, and jealously guard the questions in rounds where you feel you can make the most impact to the overall result. By answering these questions correctly with facts that you know to be true means that you can both fulfil your own purpose, whilst also winning plaudits from the team. You attain self-gratification, and practise your personal skills or knowledge to the best of your ability; likewise you try to stay quiet in other rounds when your team members take on their specialist subjects.

Things change however when it comes to the general knowledge rounds. The more obscure the questions, the less reliable knowledge and confidence you have in the answers as an individual; therefore the more you all rely on each other, you collaborate. You find ways to discuss the possible answers to the question, homing in on a potential set of answers that you consider most likely to be correct.

For example, a question comes up... "What was the name of the battle where Richard III was killed to end the Wars of the Roses?"

One team member thinks they know but can't quite put their finger on it, they believe it starts with a 'B'. Another feels it's got something to do with a field; someone else scoffs at this and reminds them that it is a battle field so it's got to be in a field. You then interject and state that's not a fair observation as you too think it could be to do with a specific name of 'something' field. Your other teammate who hasn't spoken suggests you narrow it down geographically and states that the battle didn't take place in the North of England.

Another teammate agrees and adds that they're pretty sure it wasn't St Albans, an earlier battle in the war they’ve heard of, another chips in noting that it definitely wasn't in Wales. The team member to your right jumps in and states they remember Richard's body being found under a car park in Leicester!

You concur and reason that the battle must therefore be in the midlands, it's 'something' field and it starts with a 'B'. Your teammate across the table who is the sport specialist takes a punt with Birmingham? No. The team member to your left leaps off her seat and speaks in the loudest stage whisper she dare, Bosworth! Of course, you all remember, the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Success through collaboration 

You've got the answer right. You might have got there on your own, but it's likely to have taken you a lot longer to carry out all that mental heavy lifting before the next question, all that action above took place in under 25 seconds after all. You’ve gained from communicating with your teammates. You've become greater than the sum of your parts in that round. You have explored, evoked, maybe even provoked, tested, clarified, and reasoned an answer together, like synapses firing in the brain.

Overall across the quiz the team has relied both on individual performance, as any organisation does, yet also teamwork. You have all had to acknowledge your own weaknesses and stepped back just enough to gain overall strength.

If you can identify the aspects of the work your team carries out which function optimally as collaborative projects, and as individual ones, you will have a better experience achieving your project goals. Through doing this you can see quite quickly how people operate, where they need help, and where they don't.

We're not all specialists all the time, and we all need to understand how to solve challenges effectively. Through fun experiences we naturally test ourselves and discover more about how our thinking works, how we come across, and what makes for an effective collaboration.

It's best to encourage reflection after team work, understanding what it is you have experienced, and then applying the same techniques to the roles you have to fulfil on a daily basis. Where do you work best alone? Where, and how, do you work best together?

I'll be developing more thinking and experiences this year with Murder Most Corporate.

I'd love to hear what you think?

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