Reliable Truth or Cultural Myth?

By Roy H. Williams, The Wizard of Ads

Some of you are going to feel like I’ve spit on your shoe or mocked your religion or told you that your baby is ugly, so I’d like to apologize in advance for what I’m about to say.

Teamwork in business is highly overrated.

There, I’ve said it.

I realize those 6 words are going to disturb some of you, but if my goals were merely to buy an arched eyebrow and a scornful frown and trigger an email of rebuttal, I would be just another sensationalist trying to yank a reaction from his audience.

But those are not my goals.

My goals are to make you more productive, help you reduce your mistakes, shorten your learning curve and raise the height of your success.

To do these things, we must look at what’s hiding in your blind spot.

I appreciate that you’re still reading.

I was at lunch recently with 3 incredibly bright businesspeople
when I smiled cheerfully at them and said, “I think teamwork in business is highly overrated.”

All three of them stiffened as though I had said something truly shameful. After a moment, the business owner sitting directly across from me looked down at his plate and said quietly, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion.”

We had not been talking about teamwork. There was no reason for any of these people to feel personally challenged or attacked, yet that’s exactly how they reacted. The cultural myth of Teamwork is anchored deep within the American soul, beginning, I believe, with Thomas Jefferson and “We the People” and the launch of this grand experiment called Democracy.

I spent the next hour swatting down every example of successful “teamwork” they could throw at me. At the end of that hour they universally agreed that “teamwork” is an illusion created when the individual components within a human system accomplish a goal that is credited to the collective, rather than to the individual efforts of the components.

What might appear to be teamwork in a relay race is, in truth, just a series of individual runners, each of whom begins their effort with an advantage or a deficit that was handed to them by the previous runner. If a runner increases that advantage or shortens that deficit, he or she was successful. It is only when they are rewarded collectively that we create the illusion of a team.

Individual responsibility brings out the best in us.
If you remove individual responsibility, you create a committee.
Every bureaucracy begins as a well-intentioned committee.

Leaders and managers have different functions.
A leader encourages the members of a tribe to deliver their best individual efforts. A manager holds each individual responsible for delivering the outcome that he or she has been assigned.

Steve Jobs did not invent the Apple computer.
Steve Wozniak invented the Apple computer.

Although I admire the abilities of Steve Jobs, he was merely the popularizer, the face, the dynamic leader, the pitchman, the philosopher, the high priest of the Apple religion. Without Wozniak, Steve Jobs would likely have been just another California techie bouncing from company to company in sneakers and ripped blue jeans.

Wozniak said, “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

John Steinbeck said something similar in 1952, when Wozniak was just 2 years old. “Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.”

The great David Ogilvy made a similar observation when Wozniak was in high school. “Much of the messy advertising you see on television today is the product of committees. Committees can criticize advertisements, but they should never be allowed to create them.”

I believe committees are formed when no one wants to accept individual responsibility for the outcome. I believe this is also the motive that lurks behind our current fascination with “big data.”

“Big data has become the X factor of modern marketing, the hero of every marketer’s story. But it’s a promise at risk of letting you down. You may be thinking that data will magically turn bush-league marketing into a winning ‘Moneyball’ performance. But that’s an artifact of our big data obsession. Data, alone, isn’t what makes marketing move the needle for business.”

“Data can play a leading role in developing strategy and bringing precision to execution, but it does nothing — absolutely nothing — to stir motivation and create the desire that makes cash registers ring. Data is important, but it’s content that makes an emotional connection.”
- Harvard Business Review, February 25, 2014, “What Data-Obsessed Marketers Don’t Understand,” by Jake Sorofman and Andrew Frank

There are things that can exist only in the heart of an individual. Among these are commitment, determination, resourcefulness, intelligence and pride. These may appear to exist in a group, but in truth they can exist only in each of its individuals.

So now we understand the importance of leadership.

The values, beliefs and culture of a tribe are personified by its leaders.
Steve Jobs was a tribal leader, as were Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi and Adolph Hitler.

Not all leaders are wise and good.

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

Teamwork is never the answer. Individual work is the answer.

We love teams because we love to be members of a tribe.

I embrace the attraction of belonging to a tribe because I know the power of culture and values and beliefs. Being part of a team, a tribe, gives us a sense of identity, purpose and adventure. And that helps us to perform as individuals.

Teamwork is overvalued in America because Americans love football.
But it isn’t the teamwork that attracts us.
It is the tribalism

Personally, I agree with George F. Will, who said, “Football combines two of the worst things in American life. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”

Uh-oh. Did I slap your baby again?

Roy H. Williams

PS – Please know that I was hoping only to entertain you today. It was not my intention to change your mind. Only you can do that.

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