KASFAA Oz-Sociated Press, Fall 2003
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Inside Teamwork

Submitted by
Dan Brent
Citibank

I was going to name this article "The Birds and the Bees" but I was afraid it might be read for the wrong reasons! But the birds and the bees do offer a wise example of what's involved in working together. In the large arena, human beings are "social" by nature. We create political units, associations, clubs of all sorts. Within those we collaborate to pursue common goals. And in the process we create relationships and engage in activities for mutual support.

There is a one page article around - I don't know who wrote it - that describes how geese fly in a "V" formation because the drafting aerodynamics make it easier for them to fly long distances. Geese toward the rear honk to encourage the leader and take their turn flying point.

Bee colonies fascinate scientists. It's like each bee is born genetically destined to perform a specialized function in the colony. We have terms that attempt to capture how this metaphor works for us. In work settings, it's a "unit"; in sports it's a "team"; in religion it's a "community". But the idea is the same. Individuals collaborate to pursue some shared and mutually understood goal.

Management gurus explain that four elements come together to form a team. The first is the common goal. Everyone knows what the outcome should look like, The second is a diversity of knowledge and skills. Nine first basemen do not make a baseball team. The third is collaboration. Team members find ways to work together. And the fourth element is spirit. Team members see themselves as belonging to each other. They honk for each other and celebrate each other's successes. They win or lose together!

I suspect perhaps there is a fifth component in teams: a shared sense of humor. It's difficult to sustain focus and energy when everything is unrelieved tension. I think the birds understand that. I was standing recently on the lawn of a college campus in the South. A grackle was waddling around on the grass picking at seeds and making clicking and wheezing sounds. (Grackles don't have much of a reputation as song birds.) In a tree above the grackle was a mocking bird who was entertaining himself by mimicking the grackle, looking down and repeating the clicks and wheezes. I doubt that the grackle heard or appreciated the humor, but I'm sure the mocking bird and his colleagues were amused.

I sometimes facilitate one of the popular "survival" exercises to show groups how teamwork plays out. In the simulation, the group's private plane has crashed, the pilot has been killed, and the group members are the survivors faced with trying to get out alive. Almost invariably each participating group will include a jester - someone who injects humor to relieve the tension of trying to survive.

In any enterprise now, it is rare that the participants can each do his or her own thing, oblivious to what the others are doing. That might have worked in the old assembly-line factory. But it won't work today - certainly not in a Financial Aid office.

So...

Everyone needs to understand what's supposed to happen - the goal. Everyone needs to be good at what he or she does - the diversity-of-talents factor. Everyone needs to be a collaborator - to see that it all fits together. Everyone needs to take pride in what's being accomplished. And everyone needs a sense of humor to preserve balance.

Welcome to the era of teams!

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