In a recent post, How To Be More Creative, I wrote about the myth of brainstorming. We've come to believe that team brainstorming leads to more and better ideas than individuals working independently. However, a review of over 800 teams disproves that idea. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic goes so far as to call brainstorming a 'management placebo', a business practice that feels intuitively obvious -- and is endlessly promoted because of its democratic basis -- while having no objective proof.

Chamorro-Premuzic catalogs why brainstorming doesn't work:

  • Social loafing -- People tend to make less effort when working in teams than when working alone. After all, someone else may do that thing you don't want to.
  • Social anxiety -- People worry about others' perception of their ideas, and performance drops when others are viewed as having greater expertise.
  • Regression to the mean -- Performance of the best falls when working with others that are less talented.
  • Production blocking -- Since only one person can speak at a time, suggestions are blocked as groups grow in size. And, in practice, this effect strangles contributions in all but the smallest of teams.

However, these problems are not limited just to brainstorming: they are problems with teams, generally. Aside from brainstorming and related aspects of group creativity, teams are not all they are cracked up to be.

J. Richard Hackman, the noted researcher and author of Leading Teams, pointed out this critical insight: Teams are expensive.

Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.

Teams have become the default approach to how work is done, because 'when they work they really work', as Diane Coutu pointed out. But creating great teams is a lot of work, and even when everything we know about teams is done, a team might not come together.

What are the costs of building a team? Teams must be well-defined by the team leader, so it is clear who is on the team and who is not, and what the team's agenda is. Teams are a social construct and therefore need clear rules of conduct. Teams require access to systems of communication and coordination and are enmeshed in company-wide systems like HR. Finally, great teams require coaching, generally involving people outside the group. Not all team leaders -- or members generally -- can coach individuals or teams to great performance.

But even when all of these elements are present, things can still fall apart, so each team is a gamble and can lead to an expensive failure.

How can we organize people to get work done without the risks and costs of full-on teaming, especially now when hybrid and remote work have become prevalent?

One clear alternative is relying more on individual contributors. This sidesteps some of the pitfalls of teams -- reducing group communication and coordination -- and adding additional effort for others. For example, when I was head of research for an analyst firm, nearly all our researchers were individual contributors, specialists in their own domains, while I and a team of editorial and production specialists collaborated to bring their work to our subscribers.

However, there is another alternative that is growing in use. Constance Noonan Hadley and Mark Mortensen proposed the adoption of co-acting groups, which I have decided to rename as unteams. They define it like this:

A loose confederation of individuals who dip in and out of collaborative interactions as a project or initiative unfolds.

The costs of coordination for the unteam leader may be high, but the contributors to the project have fewer communications and spend less time coordinating since they interact with the minimum number of unteam members. As the researchers lay it out:

For example, rather than orchestrating team meetings on a daily or weekly basis, managers can focus on touching base with each group member individually. Because one-on-one interactions require the combination of just two calendars and are easier to accomplish both synchronously and asynchronously, they’re likely to result in a reduction in coordination costs as compared to hybrid teams.

Unteams sound an awful lot like the Hollywood model, where specialists like cinematographers, hair stylists, and fight coordinators are brought into the movie project as needed, and when their time is done, they peel off. After the shooting is done, the after-effects and music soundtrack is laid down, and across the whole project perhaps only a core group are involved fully.

The nature of hybrid work -- and the high costs of true teams -- makes Hollywood-like unteams more compelling an alternative than ever.

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