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Finding the T in Team

I read a blog the other day in which the author, in what I think was an attempt to discredit the value of collaboration, equated group-work to group-think. Even more interesting was this individual’s claim that promoting the opportunity for students to work alone and independently was a more innovative learning experience than one where students are asked (and taught) to be productive as a team. Where, I wondered, did this come from? Her assertion seems to fly in the face of today’s conventional wisdom that collaboration is an essential skill for students andteachers.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve seen my share of what I’ll term “pseudo-collaboration” in classrooms and among adults. One of the more typical observations my instructional rounds teams make is that the students are seated in groups and working independently. Then there’s the common story about the cooperative group activity that sees one or two students doing the lions share of the work, with the other group members disengaged or involved in a different, more interesting (to them) task. Just as routine are the requests we receive to help adults engaged in professional learning communities learn how to collaborate. And I myself have argued that collaboration is a significant investment of human capital and that there are many instances where collaboration is employed without clear rationale or for the wrong reasons(Leadership as Conversation, ASCD Express, 12.22.10).

But that doesn’t suggest an absence of the need for productive teams and skillful collaboration. Certainly every predictor of economic success in a global economy claims the ability to work in teams. Social scientists acknowledge that the complexity of societal challenges require multiple perspectives to accurately define and solve its problems. And, frankly, most endeavors undertaken today require such high levels of expertise that it’s rare to find any one individual with the knowledge base that is sufficiently broad and deep to find success without the contributions of others. The answer, I think, is not to do away with collaboration, but instead to make sure that its potential is realized in a way that brings expertise and perspective where it’s needed, thus eliminating the concern that team time degenerates into the dreaded group-think.

I’ve come to believe that there are two essential elements to a productive team, be it a team of two or 20: chemistry and diversity. (Well, there are others, but without these two you might as well not even worry about any others.) Chemistry is needed because the individuals working together need to connect in that almost magical way that happens when people are able to build on each other’s thinking, fuse around a common goal, and really get each other’s perspectives. Without chemistry, the likelihood that team members will be able to produce something of value is low. Diversity is critical because without that, you might as well just tackle the task yourself. Diversity ensures that the different perspectives required for the task are represented in the group. It asks that the various types of expertise critical to a successful product are, indeed, present. In other words, chemistry and diversity represent (1) the ability and willingness to collaborate and learn from one another and (2) that the required expertise is in the room.

The design gurus of IDEO,* known around the world for successful and productive innovation (these guys designed the mouse; they’re really good) actually look for both of these qualities when they hunt for talent. They term this the T-shaped person: the small horizontal portion of the T represents the ability to collaborate and all that goes with it: empathy, active listening, understanding another’s perspective…. The longer vertical line of the T represents some distinct area of expertise that each individual brings with them. Both are essential: without the expertise, there is nothing to build on. And without the collaborative capacity, there is no way to pull the pieces together.

So my vote is that rather than give way to the worry of group-think, we opt for Teaming with a capital T and use the T in Team to ensure that the expertise (and diversity) to accomplish the task is present and that every team member is able to share that expertise through collaboration (and chemistry).

Sounds pretty simple, yes?

*IDEO is a world-leading design firm, with offices in Palo Alto, San Francisco, London, Boston and Shanghai, among other places. Consistently ranked as one of the most innovative companies in the world, IDEO is famous for its method of innovation based on intense cross-disciplinary project work. To pull this off, the company has long practiced the art of collaboration and the development of a certain kind of talent: T-shaped people.

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