Leland Teschler – Executive Editor
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In the 1990s, I was a judge for an award competition among companies that practiced something called “concurrent engineering.” For younger readers who weren’t around back then, the concurrent engineering movement got started as a way of ensuring new designs would be easy to manufacture. The basic idea was to form teams composed of design and manufacturing engineers, purchasing personnel, and anybody else who had a dog in the fight, as designs passed from the drawing board to production. The team was supposed to head off unpleasant surprises as assembly efforts began to roll.The overriding memory I have of those times was the obsession with teams. The collective “wisdom of the crowd” was supposed to make American manufacturing competitive. But evidence since then is that teams are overrated. They can discourage and suppress individuals who might otherwise make valuable contributions, and they introduce problems that never would have arisen had there been no “teamwork.”
For insights on the down-side of teams, it is useful to review the work of David H. Freedman, a science and business journalist who has made a study of why advice and pronouncements from experts, and groups of experts, often turn out to be wrong. Freedman points out that pooling the judgment of individuals doesn’t really enhance their ability to make decisions, it merely locks in whatever proclivity there is among those involved. If individuals are even slightly more likely to come up with wrong answers than right ones, that tendency becomes far more likely in a group.
And if you are looking for insightful observations, don’t form a team. Freedman points to research in the 1990s that documented social loafing among team members: People in groups tend not to try as hard as when working alone, apparently because people in groups tend to spend more time listening to others rather than noodling things out by themselves. Moreover, the larger the group, the less productive individuals become.
The fascination with teams as a competitive advantage ignores how interactions among team members can have negative effects. Freedman points out that groups are frequently dominated not by people who are most likely to be right, but by those who are belligerent, persuasive, persistent, manipulative or forceful. Groups amplify bias, squash minority points of view, and can even overcome the correct point of view when it’s not the majority view, Freedman reports. All in all, truth doesn’t win out in groups or teams.
Worse, people in teams may be inclined to just go along even if they sense things are heading to an erroneous conclusion; researchers have found group members tend to drop their guard against errors and bad judgment because whatever else groups do, they also distribute responsibility for being wrong.
If you find yourself stewing away on an unproductive work team, perhaps you can take solace in the idea that such shenanigans are annoying but typically not fatal when they happen in manufacturing plants. That’s not the case when they happen in airplane cockpits. Freedman reports that a review of cockpit black boxes has revealed that six of the ten deadliest plane crashes in history happened with at least one crew member being aware of the mistake that would ultimately destroy the plane but who stayed quiet because the rest of the crew thought differently.
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