3 Teamwork Assumptions that Choke Organizations

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From diet trends to politics to management styles, we are drawn to drastic solutions. Armed with more information than patience, we don’t just fix a problem as soon as we identify it. Instead, we keep fixing it until it’s a different problem.
How often have you seen someone who, after reading an article or attending a conference, is now ready to foist some sweeping, system-wide solution upon his or her organization? Armed with good intentions and insights, this person is eager to correct something, and quickly. How often do these abrupt shifts in focus swing a team in the opposite but equally unwanted direction? And so the fishtailing begins. For some churches and teams, these wide swings happen too often. Do not succumb this time. There is hopefully much truth in what we’ve already discussed, but heavy-handed turns of the wheel can easily become overcorrections—almost automatically.

Over the last few decades, strategic emphasis has gone from silos to mixing vats. From organizational to organic. From cubicle farms to free-range office spaces. From departments that saw one another at the Christmas party to daily meetings in the ball pit at McDonald’s. In the pursuit of Silicon Valley ingenuity, people now brainstorm, spitball, and cross-pollinate in one big multidisciplinary play zone.
Is that a good thing?
Some of it could be. But is there a danger of overcorrecting? According to data collected and reported in the Harvard Business Review, the time spent by employees in what the researchers call “collaborative activities” has increased by more than 50 percent in the last two decades.[i] According to these researchers, people at many companies now spend about 80 percent of their time participating in meetings or answering colleagues’ questions.[ii] The opening line of their article sums things up: “Collaboration is taking over the workplace.”[iii]
Apparently someone got the memo, but again: Is that a good thing?
In our efforts to tear down the barriers and isolation of the past, let’s now call out the risk (and even temptation) of overcorrecting. In my own experience with highly collaborative teams or those moving toward more collaboration, there is a very real chance that an overemphasis on us working as one can lead to an underemphasis on each one of us working.
Allow me to explain. There are at least three dangerous assumptions in collaborative environments that can slow a team down. The origins of each may have started with a benign or even well-meaning thought. But still there is potential danger here. If the following assumptions are left unchecked or unquestioned, patterns of behavior grow and intertwine around the ankles and arms of any ministry. What has the potential of breathing life into a team or church can, when overemphasized and misunderstood, choke and trip that same group with a new set of difficulties. That is why all three assumptions must be continually challenged even as newer ways of interacting are explored.

Assumption #1: We Must Do Everything Together

Growing up, my youngest daughter, Tori, played soccer most of her days. It was fun watching her and her team develop over the years. But have you ever watched really young children learn the game? Spacing is nonexistent, positions indistinguishable. Everyone drifts back to the ball like bees to the hive. En masse they move, bumbling and buzzing around the ball, but never really getting anywhere. It’s more swarm-ball than soccer.
People on highly collaborative teams love checking in with one another before moving forward. If this is not possible in person, at the very least everyone must weigh in digitally. Since we do things together, we must all see everything and then hit Reply All so that we’re all in this together. This is what makes us a team.
But is it? Must we do everything together?
The danger of co-laboring so much of the time is that we forget about the laboring part. To go back to our example from the previous chapter, the so-called Braintrust at Pixar does indeed gather to pool their insights and talents to create something much better than any of them could accomplish on their own. But those meetings—essential as they are to both the organizational and individual success—happen every few months.[iv] Not weeks, not days, but months.

Of course, there’s no formula for how often people should gather to collaborate effectively. For some, there will be brief or not-so-brief connections daily, depending on the tasks at hand. This connecting with others has a rhythm that is intuited at times and almost mandated at others. But the point of Pixar’s approach should not be lost on the rest of us. In between those meetings, something else happens. People do their jobs. They hit deadlines. They make progress—on their own. With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to tweak our cliché:
There isn’t an I in teamwork, but there is work.
As in your work. My work. We have individual jobs and roles to which we have been assigned, for which we volunteered, and in many ways to which we have been called. The only way this “working together as one” works is if each one of us works even when we’re not together.
Swarm-ball is cute when you’re five. But now we need to spread out.
In our particular organization, which loves to have many voices in the mix, we’ve had to assess when it is time to streamline the process. This takes many forms: take a few people off that particular e-mail stream, reduce the frequency of a standing meeting, and—the really difficult one—uninvite yourself from that project. This will cause a certain amount of angst and uncertainty for some on the team who are used to others thinking for them. It might also bring a sense of loss for the one who’s used to being at every party. But this development is a good thing, it begins to challenge the second assumption.

Assumption #2: Certain People Must Be Involved for the Best Ideas or Work to Emerge

There’s often a natural logjam that builds up around certain individuals in any organization or team. Without ever intending to do so, they have now become a hindrance to workflow because of their helpfulness and undeniable usefulness. As the Harvard Business Review observes, “Soon helpful employees become institutional bottlenecks.”[v] In other words, there are a few people in most organizations with whom everyone loves to work—and for good reason. They work hard. They are fun. They are insightful. Nuggets of brilliance fall out of their heads as soon as they’re apprised of a situation. Such teammates don’t just succeed—they help you succeed.
Who wouldn’t want them at a meeting or on a project?
Based on that description, it seems almost foolish to move forward without such input. And sometimes it is foolish—so don’t. But the limitations of even the highly talented inevitably emerge. As it turns out, they are human. Their lack of omnipresence makes their constant availability a bit of a struggle. Projects and people needing answers start piling up outside the door of these valuable teammates, leaving them overwhelmed at their inability to help everyone and keep up with their own jobs.

Does this sound familiar to some of you? Being invited into such an intoxicating array of conversations is fun . . . until it isn’t. You will run out of gas and ideas. It’s only a matter of time. The best part of your day was just spent solving everyone else’s problems. Meanwhile your own problems are still waiting patiently for you. No wonder the research is not too optimistic about those who collaborate too much: “They are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective.”[vi]
That can’t be what God had in mind.
Meanwhile, those who have grown too dependent on this overcentralized person start panicking at missed deadlines, and ideas aren’t as fresh as they used to be. Workflow congeals and frustration seeps to the surface.
It almost seemed easier back in the silos.
However, there is a way to unclog things: The super collaborator must learn to say no earlier.
If people are lining up outside your door right now (do you even have a door?), what is keeping you from using that two-letter word? Henry Cloud’s very important Necessary Endings is worth more than a passing glance. He rightly suggests that “endings often are absolute necessities for a turnaround or for growth to occur.”[vii] This is not a suggestion that your super collaborating comes to an end, but that it become more refined and intentional. Do not allow all this activity to swirl around your schedule and significant abilities.
If at this point you’re thinking this particular chapter is a direct contradiction to the last, it is not. It is, however, an essential counterbalance. The nature of effective collaboration is both yes and no. But healthy boundary-setting does not mean saying no to everything. It certainly does not justify a Grumpy McBitterpants routine where you keep telling everyone to get off your respective lawn—at home, work, school, or church. This does not warrant your complete isolation from everyone else so you can “finally get some work done.” That would be an overcorrect of a different, crabbier sort.
The rhythmic back and forth of “accept” and “decline” is learned and relearned by the best teams and its members.
This is the genius of working as one to the glory of God. It is both the joy of contributing and the necessary humility in letting others have their shot. But it is both.
Cloud reminds us that when the super collaborator steps back, other opportunities for growth will now have their day. And this leads to the third and final assumption that has lingered far too long in the shadows of every church, team, and organization.

Assumption #3: If Everyone Else Does His or Her Part, My Part Won’t Matter

When the rest of an organization leans too heavily on a particular player, it brings problems to both team and player. In the language of our larger discussion, a body part that is overused runs the risk of injury or at least fatigue. It also means the rest of the body is not functioning as it should. Other parts are underutilized and underdeveloped. This is not an efficient way for the many parts to work as one body. The many end up relying too much on one, and before you know it, you’re walking with a limp.
That’s why the last section was for those talented people who might just do too much. But now that they are going to back things down and steward their collaborating a tad more wisely, it is about to be someone else’s turn to contribute.
That could be you.
In this last assumption, the attention now turns attention away from the super collaborator and toward the under contributor. This is the person tempted to assume that the team does not need him or her. Again, in those environments where teamwork is stressed and fostered, there’s usually much activity. But in the midst of that buzz, people can hide or get lost. For the overlooked and underappreciated, consider this your official invitation to join the others on the field. It won’t be smooth, this transition, and it will require patience as others forget to explain the inside jokes and shortcuts that have existed for years. But don’t let that stop you. Even if it appears from the outside that things are moving along swimmingly, you are more needed than you now realize. When certain others on the team actually start establishing more healthy boundaries for themselves, you’ll be downright essential.

But there are others in these environments who do less because, well, that’s what they always do—less. If that’s you (and it’s been most of us at some juncture of our lives), hopefully this will serve as an honest but encouraging challenge to reject the lie that is this last assumption.
In 1 Corinthians 12 we see Paul making the same point we’ve already encountered in his letter to the Romans. God has designed and sovereignly assigned certain gifts and abilities to those who are now a part of what he calls collectively “the body of Christ.” The mysterious and beautiful harnessing of all these lives is to be celebrated as a whole. But the value of each individual person and every Spirit-breathed gift is also stressed by Paul’s favorite metaphor. Here, he has a little fun with the point by having body parts talk to one another: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’”—is this what they mean by “bad hand-eye coordination”?—“And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”[viii]
Such prideful isolation is not God’s design for the body of Christ.
Interdependence is very clearly Paul’s main point with this talking anatomy lesson. But implicit is the need for every part to actually do what it is supposed to do—whether it be a prominent and highly visible part or not. Paul says the whole body can’t be an eye or ear, sure. For all sorts of reasons that would be rather odd and ineffective. No, each part has a job to do, and for the brilliance of God’s design to be experienced and enjoyed, each part must now contribute. The big toe should understand its value, for the rest of the body needs a big toe (or two). So do your job, big toe. Otherwise things are going to get off balance quickly. The same goes for those unseen and unsightly internal organs without which we won’t make it very long.

Read chapter one for free.

To assume we won’t be missed is to assume we know better than God how all these parts work together. But we didn’t design this body any more than we designed our own. He did. And we don’t get to tell him how little our contribution would be missed. After all, “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” [ix]
So trust God and do your part.
The beauty of the many working in unison will only happen if we all show up.
Go a little crazy when it comes to creative solutions. Dream big. Have fun. Jump in the ball pit every now and then. Tear down some silos. Make a habit of collaborating.
But beware the overcorrection, because we’re not playing swarm-ball. The buzz of activity is not enough. It’s time to do your part. Not more than your part. Just your part.
This is how highly collaborative teams get things done. It’s how they run fast. It’s encouraging. It’s often fun. Even when it’s not, it’s worth it. And because we begin to bring our best to the table, not only do we call great things out of one another, but we also begin to relax a bit. I don’t have to do it all. I’m not supposed to do it all. And trust? Well, it starts showing up as never before.

You’ve been reading from Pastor Greg Holder’s The Genius of One: God’s Answer for our Fractured World.

[i] Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant, “Collaborative Overload,” Harvard Business Review (January-February 2016), accessed March 28, 2017, https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Catmull and Wallace, Creativity, 86.
[v] Cross, Rebele, and Grant, “Collaborative Overload.”
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward (New York: HarperBusiness, 2011), 7.
[viii] 1 Corinthians 12:21.
[ix] 1 Corinthians 12:18.

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