Teamwork – individual commitment to a group effort

Brasil 2014 was the World Cup of the individual, but Germany showed us the power of the team game. Superbly drilled as a team, tactically astute and individually disciplined, they provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 demolition of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final, and a cohesive team performance to clinch victory in the final against Argentina.

With teams carried by one creative talisman, with individual talent seen a potential match winners – Lionel Messi, James Rodríguez, Neymar and even the Netherlands were reliant on the pace of Arjen Robben – whilst Germany had talented individuals, it was the relentless team performance that won.

The 1970 competition in Mexico was the first World Cup I recall watching on television. Broadcast live by satellite and in grainy images, I recall Brazil, golden shirts shimmering in the sunshine, playing a brand of football barely imaginable to British eyes. It was slick, skilful and joyous, a team game played and won by talented individuals.

However, despite individual talent, football has become increasingly systematised, sides playing less as collections of individuals and more as a unit. This mechanisation was no less beautiful than the previous style but it was a different kind of beauty – the collective play of the Dutch and ‘Total Football’ rather than the dribbling and flair of a Pelé.

With statistical analysis and improved understanding of team strategies, structures and tactics, a pressing-style emerged.This has made the game more tactically sophisticated and interesting, but also reliant on consistency of team selection as players fit into a style of play and regime, building the mutual understanding necessary for the integration this approach demands.

When two high-pressing teams meet, the result can be stalemate, the game squeezed into a narrow sliver either side of halfway. In this World Cup, though, the early round games were often filled with glorious anarchy and, with defences less rigid than usual, skilful individuals were able to exert a powerful influence.

Some games were a throwback to the romantic fervour of a bygone age, a return to the playground style of attack-and-defence, suggesting that the spirit of Brazil at work – that everybody had caught the jogo bonito attitude. However, in the later stages where the best teams came head-to-head in more competitive games, the counter-counter patterns re-emerged, and even in the individuals’ World Cup, the system came to assert itself.

It was also noticeable that consistency of team selection – an obvious characteristic of successful teams – became a defined feature, where a small number of individuals working together on a regular basis in a defined system were successful. This counters the assertion that big squads are needed – it’s the most consistent team that wins, collaboration, empathy and familiarity outdo a wider pool of talent, with focus on team spirit.

Bigger teams don’t mean better when it comes to work either, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon famously coined this with the two pizza rule. According to Bezos, the ideal is the ‘two pizza team’: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.

Working with small teams, they often wish for more brains on deck to work on projects, build more complex features, and talk with more customers. It’s just natural to believe that larger teams means you’ll get more stuff, and better stuff done, and much more swiftly – but the research shows that throwing more people at a problem is one of the most common productivity traps to fall into.

People in smaller teams are far more personally productive. As group size rises, all sorts of issues spring up. Individual performance levels diminish and people start to grow less engaged. So while larger teams may get more done altogether, it’s happening at a rate lower than the sum of individual efforts. Even if more people provide a greater pool of resource, they also require greater amounts of coordination and management, to the point where size becomes an impediment.

Forget herding cats, herding humans is a challenge enough, having to grapple with three hidden costs that start to climb with team size: coordination costs, motivation costs, and relational costs.

1. Coordination Cost

The late Harvard psychologist, Richard Hackman, bluntly stated ‘big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time’. What Hackman found is that it is not the number of people but the links between them that accumulate when group size increases. The coordination cost proliferates with every new addition, and management is a project of handling the links.  His formula shows how the links grow at an accelerating rate:

Number of links = n(n-1)/2, where n = the number of people

To put this more simply:

  • A start-up of 7 people has 21 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 12 has 66 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 60 has 1770 connection points to maintain.
  • An enterprise of 6000 has 17.997m connection points to maintain.

Each additional person increases total productivity of the team but at a decreasing rate, which means if you were the third member to join a team, you made a bigger impact on its productivity than if you were the thirtieth.

Every steep jump in links also produces a steep jump in the potential for mismanagement and miscommunication. Delays emerge from the snowballing time and effort required to keep everyone informed, coordinated and integrated. Adding human-power to a late project just makes it later.

Research shows that the magic number for the most effective teams varies between four to nine, and more often six or seven. What’s clear is that if you want your herd of humans to get more stuff done, avoid having your team numbers hit double digits.

2. Motivation Cost

The mere perception that you’re in a group can deplete your own motivation and effort, a phenomenon known as ‘social loafing’, fear of getting lost in a crowd and depleting the strength of relationships.

A study by Latan demonstrated the social loafing effect with groups as small as six. Participants wearing blindfolds and noise-masking headphones had to shout as loud as they could. Everyone made less noise in groups compared to when they shouted alone.

While the total sound produced was louder, it didn’t grow in proportion with the group size. People in teams of six shouted at 36% of their full individual capacity. When researchers controlled for any possible coordination loss by having participants shout in concert when they were actually shouting alone, people still didn’t perform at full capacity, producing 74% of their full potential sound.

Another explanation for this phenomenon is Ringelmann’s rope pulling experiment, which shows clearly how input per head decreases as group sizes get bigger.

Ringelmann tested the effort capable of being exerted by seven individuals, on individual rope pulling tests. He then put them into teams, from two to seven, and found the collective output fell from 100% (baseline for individual effort), to just 55% per individual when seven formed a team – an attrition rate of 45%.

Social loafing is a feedback problem, when groups get larger, you experience less social pressure and feel less responsibility because your performance becomes difficult to correctly assess amidst a crowd. Human nature makes us try less hard, as we think our colleagues’ effort will compensate. The reality is a serious degradation in output as team size increases.

While initially you might not be cognizant of social loafing, that unconscious disengagement can quickly morph into purely selfish, self-interested behaviour, a fall in commitment to the team, a lack of intimacy and active disengagement. If you don’t feel like you matter, or have to make a difference, then what’s the point of trying so hard?

3. Relational Loss

University of San Diego Professor of Management, Jennifer Mueller uncovered ‘relational loss’ as the third element of why individuals’ efficiency decreases in larger teams.

Relational loss is when you feel as if you are receiving less and less support as teams get larger. This includes emotional support, assistance in performing work and overcoming setbacks. You become isolated, and don’t feel you have a shoulder to lean on or someone to help you out of a jam.

When you’re in a team, you regularly interact and spend time with each other every day. Mueller suspected that the deteriorating quality of those multiplying links contributed to weaker individual performance – just think about how the more connections you make on social networks, the weaker those ties usually are. People’s perception of support decreased as team size increased and this relational loss accounted for poorer individual performance.

The price of relational loss is paid with feelings of isolation, which harms cognitive ability and causes poorer performance. Mueller found that in larger teams, people were lost, had no identity with the team, and disconnected.

So what tools and techniques can we utilise to overcome the three risks of dysfunctional and unproductive teams? Here are some suggestions:

Figure out and apply the right communication tools The cult of productivity is often inwardly focused on the personal, while neglecting the needs of the collective. Find and use team based communication tools and processes that lower coordination cost and save people time. Focus on team productivity not personal.

This may mean finding opportunities for collaboration, apps or changing how you run meetings. Create meaning and connection through an adaptable cadence of communication rather than causing frustration and guzzling time. The agile practice of daily stand-ups is a highly effective tool for this.

Break teams down into smaller units Breaking teams down into units where everyone knows their colleagues name, role and personality makes common sense. The research highlighted earlier shows smaller teams are more effective where personal relationships are closer, there is intimacy and camaraderie, which creates a greater sense of belonging and purpose. Enabling rapport is a great way of improving productivity.

Be adventurous with your office configuration Find new ways to create opportunities for connection and personal interfaces, Skype and Google hangouts are effective for virtual teams, but having a café style area in the office for team conversations creates greater social meaning and also an opportunity for more intense and direct interaction.

Become radically transparent Transparency helps prevent behaviours such as social loafing and free-riding, which rely on the fact that there’s somewhere easy to hide, and power plays, which rely on hoarding knowledge like an information miser. Ensure all your team are highly effective communicators and socially comfortable with total transparency – half your job besides doing your work is communicating to colleagues about it, make knowledge a team asset, accessible, visible and a collective responsibility, chronicling decisions and processes, and being inclusive. Sharing daily learnings is a positive, protective shield against relational loss.

Give frequent feedback to each other Don’t isolate feedback to some twice-a-year supervisory formality, get the conversation flowing among everyone in your team to help strengthen the connections between individual effort and performance, which get swallowed up in the crowd through motivational loss. Make feedback meaningful.

Ask questions, show your teammates gratitude and appreciation, and respond to distress signals. Creating a high frequency feedback culture, where there are daily discussions on what everyone gets done and monthly one-on-ones, helps everyone connect, understand other’s issues, and be better at their own jobs.

But back to Sunday’s game. It was nerve-rattling, energy sapping and hard-fought. Despite the dearth of goals, there was never a dull moment inside the Maracanã Stadium and the match proved worthy of a World Cup Final. It was only during the second half of extra time that striker Mario Götze, who only joined the game in the 88th minute, scored the game’s only goal.

Mario Götze’s goal was of irresistible elegance, the crowning glory for the tournament’s best team, the one which had always sought the initiative. The German coaching team’s tactical flexibility, whether it was fast vertical play or patient ball retention,  always found the right answer for every tactical challenge. Joachim Löw played a crucial part in this triumph – he always had the right team strategy, right team structure, right team processes – and the right team players.

‘It doesn’t matter at all whether we have the best individual players or not,’ said German captain Phillip Lahm, ‘you have to have the best team. We had unbelievable coherence, cohesion and closeness’.

It’s a strange exclamation mark at the end of a tournament of free and flighty moments, from Neymar’s and Messi’s flitters of brilliance and after all the positive and negative passion and emotion, that the winner is an effort of pure planning and the fruits of the intricate and organised system they put in place.

Even in the chances they created, you got the sense of contrast on offer. While Lionel Messi provided the natural and the unexpected, Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos provided the learned and practiced, and for all the Germans’ movement, intricate passing and attacking that was evident from the early stages as they prodded and probed at the Argentinian massed defence, there was a sense of training ground planning to much of it. A winning team on top of their game.

That’s not to take away from their talent and threat, but it’s a misplaced narrative we are left with. They are the world’s best team, with some of the world’s best players – but they don’t have the best individuals. Other teams now must take note of how Germany created their success as they look to beat them. For business, the lessons of effective teamwork and relentless pursuit of the team goal was there to be seen.

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