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The power of One


If you asked the head of a company like, oh I don't know... Sun for example, which employee he'd prefer: the perfect team player who doesn't rock the boat or the one who is brave enough to stand up and fight for something rather than accept the watered-down group think that maintains the status quo (or makes things worse), which would he choose?

In his book Re-imagine", Tom Peters says, "We will win this battle... and the larger war... only when our talent pool is both deep and broad. Only when our organizations are chock-a-block with obstreperous people who are determined to bend the rules at every turn..."

I'm guessing there aren't many CEOs who'd publicly disagree with Tom on that.

So yes, I'm thinking Mr. CEO of Very Large Company would say that their company should take the upstart whatever-it-takes person over the ever-compromising team player. "If that person shakes us up, gets us to rethink, creates a little tension, well that's a Good Thing", the CEO says. riiiiiiiiiight. While I believe most CEOs do think this way, wow, that attitude reverses itself quite dramatically the futher you reach down the org chart.

There's a canyon-sized gap between what company heads say they want (brave, bold, innovative) and what their own middle management seems to prefer (yes-men, worker bees, team players). Oh, you won't actually hear any manager say that... but you see it over and over again in their choices. When the tech downturn hit, wouldn't you know it... the less-than-team-player folks were the first to go in layoffs. Yet, these were probably the folks the company most needed when it became painfully clear that business as usual was failing horribly.

Just one of the many problems with the whole team player thing is that you (the one accused of NOT being one) have almost no defense against it. In the business world (except at the top or in certain industries), team players are thought to be filled with inherent goodness. Those who challenge the status quo against the team are viewed as hurting the culture and productivity of the team. Mavericks, they call us. Cowboys. Lone wolfs. Trouble makers. That's not completely untrue. Teams where everyone is completely in sync with little disagreement are more productive.

But the question is... productive at what? Because team think usually promotes doing things exactly the way they've always done them. Not exactly a recipe for being totally f'in amazing.

Team thinking leads to incremental improvements, and prevents revolutionary ideas.

Revolutionary thoughts are, by definition, thinking outside the team.

Purple Cows just don't usually come from teams working together to reach a solution. Purple Cows come from the wild-ass idea one guy had in the shower. That doesn't mean he can't be part of a team, but the more unusual an idea is, the more resistance it will get from a group, and that's often enough to suck the life out of an idea. Or it goes from being a purple cow to one that's merely a slightly darker shade of brown.

I'm not dissing teams--our books are all collaborative efforts, and far better because of it. And we consider ourselves to be on a team that includes our publisher O'Reilly. It's not teams that are the problem, it's the rabid insistence on teamwork. Group think. Committee decisions.

Most truly remarkable ideas did not come from teamwork. Most truly brave decisions were not made through teamwork. The team's role should be to act as a supportive environment for a collection of individuals. People with their own unique voice, ideas, thoughts, perspectives. A team should be there to encourage one another to pursue the wild ass ideas, not get in lock step to keep everything cheery and pleasant.

I simply don't buy into the "none of us is as good as all of us" as fact. While it's often true, it's just as often not. There are times when you can and should step back and say, "Not only am I as good as all of us, I'm actually better at this particular thing, because the entire team is headed in the wrong direction, and there's too much inertia to get the whole damn team to turn around at the same time." Obviously a manager doesn't want total anarchy and chaos from each individual thinking their idea rules and everybody else is an idiot, but somewhere there's a balance, and the heavy emphasis on teamwork/teamplayer-ness is tipped way too far in the non-individual direction.

I consider "There's no 'I' in Team" to be terribly depressing. It sounds, in fact, just like what the Borg said on Star Trek. There is most definitely an "I" in any team I'm on. I have value in, and out, of a team. I will not surrender my passion in order to be a team player. And any team who doesn't value that isn't a team I want to be part of. I do believe that a team can change the world, but it's still a team of individuals supporting each other in being brave, strong, innovative, and passionate.

There is an "I" in PASSION.

Posted by Kathy on February 19, 2005 | Permalink


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"While I believe most CEOs do think this way, wow, that attitude reverses itself quite dramatically the futher you reach down the org chart"

Wow! Having worked in MNC who has high profile CEO with values like 'honesty', 'open-ness' (and all that blah blah), it was amazing to see how much 'practical' (you know what I mean) the middle management was. The amazing part is CEO himself never realizes this truth. Btw, is it that CEO does not realize it OR decides to keep his eyes closed?

And I have gone through the pain of being identified as 'not being team player' and I completely agree with what you have said. And it explains why I do only contracting now!


Posted by: JD | Feb 19, 2005 7:52:09 PM

"Only when are organizations" probably should read: "Only when *our* organizations"...

Posted by: typo | Feb 19, 2005 11:47:16 PM

I can't believe I'm doing this, but I love your site so I want you to know that I think there is a weakness in this article.

The picture represented here isn't complete. Or the portrayal of management in this situation is over-simplified. There's no way a manager can agree with every idea presented to him by members of his team.

Just because an idea is different doesn't make it good.

In general I agree with everything you said. I especially admire the idea that teams are groups of individuals. I just feel that you're presenting anyone that thinks differently as being some kind of hero. There are cases where they are heroes, but there are cases where they are not. It's this second case that I think was missing from the article.
When I think of a team-player I think of someone who can think differently but can also deal with having his ideas rejected and still want to contribute. At some point someone has to make a decision. It's rare when a decision pleases everybody. I want your passion, but I also want your co-operation.

"...obstreperous people who are determined to bend the rules at every turn..." Obstreperous can mean stubbornly defiant. That sounds like a complete nightmare to me.

Posted by: Eric Titcombe | Feb 20, 2005 6:34:37 AM

ERIC: I pretty much agree with everything you said, but this is a seriously tricky one... "I want your passion, but I also want your cooperation" is exactly what I'd want from my team as a manager, but how do you define "cooperation"? While I believe *your* interpretation (and mine) is healthy, that word is often terribly abused to mean "absolute agreement and acceptance without challenge." (I wrote a blog on java.net about pair programming, and I got a ton of private emails from people expressing support but who were afraid that if their managers discovered they weren't actively evangelizing pair programming, that alone would be enough to kill their career. THAT is scary.)

You're absolutely right--someone who disagrees isn't necessarily right, and just because an idea is different doesn't make it good. But... someone who stands up for his different thinking--*even if what he's thinking is wrong*--in some ways IS a hero, if taking that stand is risking his job. I believe the ideal person you want on a team is just as you described--one who can think differently *and* not be too attached to his own ideas. Anyone who believes they alone have "the one true way" is being just as rigid and harmful as the group thinking he may be challenging.

Sadly, there are way too many managers/corporate cultures that (unlike you) want passion to be demonstrated only as the thing that gets you to come in on weekends, stay late, and support all team decisions with unwavering enthusiasm. There's a huge group of us out there who'd just about kill to have YOU as a manager. : )

I think that most of us labeled cowboy/maverick/lone wolf simply want to feel as though we are *heard*. We start becoming nightmares when our perspectives are dismissed out of hand. If the managers (and the teams) give our concerns/thoughts/ideas respect, we can usually be happy even when they're shot down. But shoot them down with facts, research, valid counter arguments... not because of some other BS "upper management directive", or by suggesting that we're not a team player simply for *questioning*.
I should mention that I think being a good manager is an extraordinarily tough job. I was a manager for about two years and was awful at it. Am I over-simplifying? Yes. But the balance today is off, so I'm advocating for the weaker side. Until you see as many motivational posters, slogans, and corporate HR campaigns encouraging brave status-quo-challenging thought as you see encouraging teamwork, I'll argue harder for the lone-wolf side.

Advice to mavericks: when you DO present your ideas and challenges, try to minimize the threat by using research and facts, not opinion. Make a valid case by bringing in data they might not have considered, and be sure to recognize all opposing arguments. Give them as much (or more) respect than you want your ideas to get. And supress the "I can't believe what IDIOTS you all are..." attitude, no matter how true it is ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 20, 2005 11:47:55 AM

Thank you. Your response is great. Now I feel the article has the right balance.

I suppose I've been very lucky with respect to the corporate environments that I've worked in. I've never had a boss shoot down one of my ideas based on some "upper management directive".

Your site is excellent. I sometimes wish I were a Java developer so that I would have a valid reason for buying one of your books. If they're anything like this site they must be fantastic. Keep up the great work.

Posted by: Eric Titcombe | Feb 20, 2005 1:43:03 PM

Excellent points all. I'd like to add one additional dimension, which is that we CAN be both passionate individual thinkers and team players, taking on each role when the situation dictates it. In many cases, I think it boils down to strategy and execution. It is an individual with passion who comes up with the crazy breakthrough strategy, and the organization has to be smart enough to then marshal the team to execute it.

Posted by: Susan Getgood | Feb 20, 2005 2:04:44 PM

Another fantastic article. As a former obstreperous middle manager (I always described myself as obstinate...thanks, I now have another adjective in my personal lexicon), I'll give some input as to why I think middle managers veer toward prefering "team players." Middle managers often get the squeeze from above and below. Executives above them may profess that they want radical thinking, but as you mention, they'll not back it up wholeheartedly. I always had to deal with my Director pointing out the "troublemakers" and telling me I had to deal with them. Turns out, usually all these folks wanted to do was be heard and make changes that would help them do their jobs better. It then became my job to support these voices from below and advocate for them. Often, I got tagged as a "troublemaker" as well. That's a lot of work and a lot of risk to assume.

Posted by: Christopher Bailey | Feb 21, 2005 8:28:42 AM

And a couple of 'i's in innovation...

Posted by: Tom | Feb 21, 2005 1:23:30 PM

Interesting article. 400 years B.C. Socrates tried his best to describe how the human race normally followed each other like sheep instead of logically thinking about other people's reasoning and reaching our own sensible conclusions determined by the use of actual facts instead of just following the opinion of a "leader" whose resoning very often did not stand the test of logic. Today we see the exact same thing happening, e.g. we all must have a mortgage and pay up our cars (giving financial companies our hard earned cash in interest payments) because it's what we are all programmed to do - it's the norm.

Management teams no doubt work more effectively (as studies have shown) than individuals. However, we must never be afraid to question the logic of our own leader's decisions for the benefit of the team.

Posted by: Tom Shanks | Feb 21, 2005 2:11:20 PM

The article "Should CEOs tell truth about being in trouble?" appeared in my local business section over the weekend. Summary: CEOs don't tell the truth because a) they don't know what the truth is or, b) because the truth would hurt them if the stock market price drops.

There are some real communications problems in companies and they don't need to be large companies either.

The CEO needs to spend time in the trenches with the grunts to see what is actually going on, because the reports he gets from the middle might not be giving the right kind of feedback.

The ideas we cowboys come up with don't even have to be actually radical they just have to be different from what they expect.

An idea like "Let's make the product easy for the customer to use" can be as career damaging as "Let's sell off the mills and concentrate on consumer goods."

What is really funny is that 80% of ideas are junk, and 80% of decisions are wrong. With those kinds of odd it seems pointless to even try to propose something new to an organization. Creating a new company seems to be the only reasonable way to actually do something new.

There seems to be a need for a business that creates companies to try out ideas. VCs are sort of like that but rather then just supplying money, supply support personnel to complement the idea persons abilities.

Posted by: Stephan F | Feb 21, 2005 2:23:43 PM

Well, there are teams, and then there are teams.

Every organization has a culture. Out of that cultural loam grow teams that are either compliant, stifling and dull (even codependent) or those that are more freeing, innovative, and synergistic. Some of our best ideas and decisions have come from team involvement with people who enjoy seeing others succeed.

That I think was the true athletic brilliance of Michael Jordan. He was not only a bonafide superstar, but he lifted the level of play of everyone else on his team.

In my experience the root problem is not team vs. individual. It's innovative people struggling against an ingrained culture that is inherently stifling. Team then takes on the attributes of a contagious collective and people are assimilated or discarded. Resistance is futile because of the culture.

Culture is driven primarily by values. And values can only be observed by what people do, not what they say.

Great leaders and coaches mold their systems to maximize the talents of their individual players. Great bureaucrats attempt to mold their players to maximize the output of the system.

Organizations who value innovation and its collateral will spawn teams where individuals can star and be recognized while the whole team kicks some serious buttocks (pronounced boo'-tox).

Posted by: Chris Busch | Feb 22, 2005 12:22:29 AM

"We must dare to think “unthinkable” thoughts. We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world. We must learn to welcome and not fear the voices of dissent."

– J. William Fulbright, educator, legislator

Posted by: Stephan F | Feb 22, 2005 9:23:58 AM

I have a couple points that might add to your thoughts...
The first is one of my favorite quotes which I believe was attributed to Michael Jordan when someone told him there is not "I" in team ... "That may be true, there is definitely an "I" in WIN !"

The second point has to do with the Zen-like quality that is needed to be both a disruption as well as a team player. I've always considered myself a team player and I often disagree with my bosses and fellow team members but what has allowed me to do both of those roles is by reminding the people I am disagreeing with that we are on the same team and we have the same goals. If we do not have the same goals, then that is a REAL problem but, so far, I haven't run into it.

In general, my rule (as a disruptive team player) is to disgree without being disagreeable! (There is probably more on this subject in the works of Jim Collins who authored "Built to Last" and "Good To Great".)

Posted by: Dave Wheeler | Feb 22, 2005 10:32:04 AM

Once read an article desribing a study (talk about third-hand infomration...): They put together two teams that had the same objective (coming up with some kind of environmental analysis/plan). The first team solely consisted of "greens", the other was opinionally more varied.
The first team set to productive work very quickly, but hit a kind of plateau/wall somewhere along the road.
The second team took longer to work together, but in the end they produced a much more thorough and balanced output.

If I'm confidend that I'll always will come up with another idea, that I'll be able to adapt and adopt - then there is no problem with shooting down ideas (also I like dissecting better). At least not from the content point of view. Tone and attitude are another matter.

I've sometimes had the opposite experience: superiors being to hesitant to critisize, apologizing for their opinions and ideas for modification. In those moments I'm getting twitchy and like to say: "Just say what you want, what you mean. Let's get into a dialogue here."

incoherently yours,

Posted by: Jens | Jun 16, 2005 3:08:33 AM

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