Teamplayer?

Posted 1 month, 2 weeks ago | Originally written on 29 Jul 2021

This is a raw dump of a swirl of ideas running through my mind. If they are incoherent it is because I'm still in the process of organising them.

The vision of teamwork is accomplishing more than what a single individual can accomplish.

  • If you're like me, it is rare to encounter true teamwork. Very few job vacancy descriptions will be opposed to teamwork; in fact, most require it even though it is debatable that they actually practice teamwork. It is more natural to drift into individualistic execution than to depend upon teamwork. Accomplishing teamwork requires deliberate effort to ignite and sustain. I know this because, while I am drawn towards the possibility of accomplishing more than I can on my own, I have an appetite to succeed on my own so that I can enjoy the glory of a solo achievement.
  • The glories of the world set us up to fail at teamwork because there is a lot more room to celebrate the elite artist than the teamplayer. There is no face to a team. If anything, a team photo deprives us of someone to aspire to even if nothing superhuman ever comes from an individual. Like it or not, superman and superwoman do not exist.
  • But we know full well that however excellent Tiger Woods is at his swing, if he had to ferry his own golf clubs he probably would lose just enough concentration to knock him off his game. If we exclude all the extra points earned by his team mates, Michael Jordan would simply be a great player in a losing team (which wouldn't really count for much). If Serena Williams had to coach herself, she probably would have given up way before she accomplished her incredible career. The excellence of these elite athletes is only possible in the context of the elite teams they are a part of, whether those teams are presented as well as the athletes they support.
  • It is only through teams that outstanding achievements can come about. Even the great Gary Kasparov had a group of elite players who pushed him earnestly so as to prevent him from losing focus and getting comfortable. Here is the bottom line: great ambition requires teams. Period.

Teamwork presents itself quite naturally in physical situations, where physical strength and coordination provide advantages over individual abilities. A team of well-coordinated individuals can excel far above a team of discordant A-rated players.

  • However, not all works presents itself to teamwork in equal measure. Ostensibly physiotemporal tasks benefit from teamwork: from the intricacies of brain surgery to the performance in team sports. Intellectual tasks, on the other hand, seem to present a slippery slope for teamwork.
  • I believe there are certain properties of physiotemporal tasks that facilitate a more ready acceptance for teamwork than intellectual tasks. By being aware of these properties and creating intellectual analogues, I believe it is possible to make salient the need and angles by which teamwork can be harnessed. Therefore, what are the properties of physiotemporal tasks that lend themselves quite readily to teamwork?
  • Scenario: Suppose that your car stalls and you need to get it off the road. Everyone will naturally rely on the raw strength of multiple individuals to get it off the road. We take it for granted that this will work so we will instinctively reach for it. In any case, it's the only option available in that situation. What are the properties of that situation?
  • Directionality and orientation: We need to push the car together in the same direction aligned with how the car should move. The car should also be placed in the right orientation.
  • Scope: We need to get the car sufficiently far off the road. Not just a little and not too much. We can measure when it will be sufficient.
  • Occupancy and volume: The car occupies a particular location in space and there is only so much surface we can use to push.
  • Inertia: The car does not want to be pushed. Once it starts moving it does not want to stop to the extent that friction will allow.
  • Resource limits: We can only begin pushing once we have enough people to do so. It might be the case that we fail to reach the minimum threshold required to dislodge the car.
  • Hierarchy and roles: Not all participants in the task play the same roles. We might need someone to stand guard to avoid some obstactle or someone to signal oncoming traffic away from the team or someone to steer. Not all participants play the same roles.
  • Perspective: The team can see where we are and where we need to get to.

There are several analogues that must be carried over from the physical to the intellectual for teamwork to succeed. In order for us to elicit the analogues we need an intellectual scenario. The one that most readily comes to mind is a software project that far exceeds the skill and time resource of a single individual. Let's apply each in turn.

  • Directionality and orientation: What is the order of progression? How do we know the order of progression? How should we align the nature of problem with the work that needs to be done?
  • Scope: How do we know when to stop? We need a clear stopping point otherwise we enter feature creep.
  • Occupancy and volume: Where does our solution sit in the space of solutions? How much space does it occupy? What are the meaningful handles to employ in applying our solution?
  • Inertia: In what way is the problem refusing to be solved? In what way does our solution exert a life of its own over future progress?
  • Resource limits: What are the constrains we need to apply for a practical solution to fit with our users' needs? How can we account for limited resources? Are these limits pluggable so that we can easily switch from resource restraints to resource abundance?
  • Hierarchy and roles: Who is in charge? What roles are needed for the project to succeed? How do the various roles interact in fulfilling their responsibilities?
  • Perspective: What do all team members see? Is what they see relevant to their current task? Can they easily tell where we are in the development process?

Teamplayers can only succeed in functioning teams. Teamwork as an environment.

  • It is one thing to work as a team but quite another to have an team-oriented environment. A team-oriented environment natively supports team interaction and operations. It enables teamwork.
  • Even if the intellectual task is accomplished by individuals participating through their private mental space, there needs to a common work environment so that the team members are continually synchronised and directed in line with the work that needs to be done.

Teamwork as the process.

  • A team-oriented process is built for the participation of team members. It is designed for input from various roles and relies on the distributed perspectives of its participants.
  • One way to realise this is through team dependencies so that certain tasks can only be achieved through the presence of one or more members.

Some uncategorised questions:

  • With intellectual tasks, since the actual work done is mental, which is a private space, it is hard to work together simultaneously unlike with physiotemporal tasks which require synchronisation.
  • Being able to partition the intellectual task is vital so that even when the work is done in private mental spaces there is continual forward movement.

Here is a provocative thought: a team should be grown in line with the project's needs in a similar manner to the way a software product's design is emergent (q.v. Emergent Design in Software) i.e. the extent to which the team is required is known to the extent to which the project is understood. The formation of the team should remain loose just in the same way good design is exemplified by loose coupling between unrelated parts so that the leader may deploy and adjust the job descriptions as the need arises. In the example above of pushing a car off the road, the participants should be keen enough to know when they may need to adjust their position in line with progress.

******

  • In an orchestra every member of the team plays a distinct role. Abandoning this role undermines the common goal.
  • There is a strong relationship between work breakdown into granular processes and team work; for it is only within a framework of clearly defined processes that a team can participate