During the second half of 1998, I underwent a spell of self-employment. It seems like a recent period, but it was more than a quarter of my working life ago. I left a very hierarchical organization — partners oversaw client relationships and pursued new business; senior consultants managed their areas of expertise; consultants and associates crunched numbers and drafted documents. You knew who did what and why, even if you didn’t always agree with it. More importantly, even if you thought a particular person was unpleasant or difficult or a poor project manager, you knew that at the very least they could claim professional credentials, for example, a law degree, or progress toward associate or fellow status in the Society of Actuaries or toward Certified Employee Benefits Specialist status. They would also have some experience to achieve a higher position in the hierarchy. You can’t review and sign off on valuations or allocations without the credentials or the background.
There is a different team model in which everyone is equal, and qualifications are nearly irrelevant. There is a group leader, whose function seems to be to call and sit at lengthy meetings where even relatively simple decisions are made by the group. The leader may try to skew the decision toward his or her preference, but if the group disagrees he or she may go along with the group’s will. The advantage is that there’s team buy-in to decisions, which may inspire members to work harder to achieve the consensus goals. The downside, aside from the disproportionate amount of time spent coming to the decision, is that, paradoxically, there may be little motivation for an individual to work hard or perform well. After all, earning a degree or professional accreditation or having deep or broad work experience means no more than that you will be a more knowledgeable, experienced yet equally faceless member of the team.
The concept of teamwork seems empowering on the surface; everyone has the opportunity to contribute (even if individuals are not skilled enough to contribute wisely. “No idea is a bad idea.”). The team also devalues the individual because the individual’s attributes become irrelevant. Knowledge, experience, and strategic ability can easily succumb to the will of the team, which may aspire to feel good about its decisions rather than to make the right ones. The vocal or persuasive majority can easily outshout and overrule the wiser minority.
The result is often wasted effort as time is spent on pursuing pointless goals in a way that some members of the team know is doomed at conception. If it fails, the team will regroup. One of the original good ideas will arise, and the team may treat it as though they had never heard it before. If it should succeed, they will be quick to take credit as a team, leaving individual contributors not only unnoticed, but unrewarded and therefore unmotivated.
More importantly, individual team members usually don’t have the opportunity to benefit from one-on-one mentoring — a method I found useful when I was learning from my senior consultant and when I was bringing up new associates.
I feel very odd that a committed individualist like me would consider for even a moment the superiority of a hierarchical system, where only individuals of the right type are favoured and where less aggressive, adviser types have fewer opportunities and play a limited role.
The team system is no better in the long run, however. Those who speak loudest, whether they know what they’re talking about, still tend to be the most successful, often to the detriment of achieving the team’s goals and objectives. If one or two individuals dissent, they are perceived as impeding progress rather than adding value. Rarely does the team reevaluate the prevailing inclination based on the dissenting voices of the troublesome minority.
Interestingly, the hierarchical system may be better at arriving at the best answer simply because the responsibility is clear, and it’s in the best interest of the decision maker to make good choices and recommendations.
As with anything else, neither system works perfectly or even well. The team system, if not managed well, favours mediocre results; both the worst and best options are sometimes disregarded, forcing all team members to support and promote a recommendation many of them may not believe in. They and the client may feel frustrated by the wasted effort and time.
In the hierarchical system, too much pressure is placed on the decision maker. At the same time, if he or she is a poor leader and/or mentor, the individual team members may never learn the skills and discretion they need to grow, and the leader may not be adept at drawing out ideas from others that he or she may not have considered otherwise.
I don’t have the solution. I suspect smaller teams, well balanced between experienced people and novices, where the latter can learn from the former and the former can be inspired by the latter, led by individuals who are truly good leaders rather than simply strong personalities, would be an improvement for the people, the product, and the results. I wonder if there are teams that have achieved this level — and how.