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Team Collaboration & Cooperation

A case study about a professional services firm dependent on team collaboration and cooperation.

One of the premier professional services firms had pioneered a new line of business that promised to be extremely lucrative, positioning the firm as a significant thought leader in that industry. The managing partner of the group was given carte blanche to recruit the best talent from across the organization for his team. Each of the 21 professionals selected was an expert in their field and a top performer within the company. Recognizing that each engagement would require different sets of expertise, the operating strategy paralleled that of Mission Impossible. The managing partner assembled three or four-person teams composed of the appropriate specialists. They would work closely together to provide the services needed by the client. Once the engagement was completed, the teams would disband into the group’s talent pool, from which different teams would be configured for future opportunities. The success of this strategy hinged on the ability of the individuals to contribute effectively within that collaborative team structure. The assumption was that brilliant and highly talented, well-educated professionals could do so simply because it was necessary and because they all sought the same objectives.

In the first year, the group barely achieved 30% of its revenue goals, despite having abundant prospects and a high level of market acceptance of the concepts. The HR department conducted an excellent series of training sessions focused on the importance of Teaming. There were teaming banners, teaming buttons, and the teaming terminology was inserted into all corporate communications. A special retreat was held, featuring NFL star, Joe Montana, to emphasize the importance of teamwork to championship teams, and Montana-autographed footballs were handed out to all participants. Despite these efforts, the number of engagements captured by the Team remained far below expectations.

Engagements that were undertaken seemed to be plagued with delays, conflicting objectives, and other frustrating issues.

At this point, a DATA solution was suggested. The individuals completed a special online assessment, and their results were aggregated into an inventory of cognitive abilities and interpersonal competencies. In effect, this was a blueprint, or more accurately, an MRI of the topology of the team. Three critical clusters of behavioral extremes appeared in the results. These are illustrated in TABLE A. The three rows show the distribution of the 21 team members on three of the scales measured by the assessment. The numbers in the boxes represent the number of individuals that scored in that range.

A. The overall cognitive ability of the team is quite high, with 19 members being in the top 10 % of the population. This is perfectly suited to the business and represents a valuable asset in any engagement. Everyone is equally quick and mentally agile.

B. 21 members of the “team” are independent contributors when on a team. They each want to be the “star”of the team. They want to excel and outperform others. They see teamwork as an internal competition in addition to the external competition of business. This produces a high level of individual motivation to achieve the team's goals through their individual efforts. Without careful management coupled with strong self-awareness of the issues by the members of the team, projects will be characterized by a myriad of battles to have the “best” idea. Even forced collaboration is done with an eye to being the top contributor rather than seeking to share ideas or find synergy between them.

C. 21 members of the team have a strong need to be in control of their world. In fact, they push that need for control in quite confrontational ways. They are completely comfortable with debate. It is how each of these individuals tests and refines their thinking.

In summary, all twenty-one members of the team needed to be the star of the team; a need to outperform the other members; and a need to be right about their ideas. This was powered by their fundamental need to challenge and confront different viewpoints, which in turn was supported by fast cognitive processing and brilliant thinking. This dynamic ensured that significant energy was diverted into endless debates, arguments, and power struggles. A less collaborative group would be difficult to assemble.

In this case study, highly intelligent, well-trained professionals were highly motivated to accomplish clearly defined goals. Unfortunately, the operating plan was developed with no consideration for the topology of the team. That behavioral topology defines the operating parameters of the team just as the foundation of a building defines the parameters of what can be constructed upon it.

It was a satisfying triumph of practical knowledge over motivational footballs. Over the next several months using the team topology information, the operating plan was modified and talent resources were reselected along more collaborative lines. Management took a more involved and proactive role, also aided by specific knowledge of the inherent issues. With the talent, the topology, and the operating strategy now synchronized, over $20 million in revenue was generated in the following year.

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