Teamwork is lesser work

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts—that’s not true. Not universally, at least. Science has known this since the 19th century, that a proper team working together will often deliver less, and of lesser quality, than if the same individuals were working on their own. It’s high time we question the holy grail of “teamwork” to see exactly where it works and where it fails.

I had an eye-opening moment reading Professor Richard Wiseman’s beautifully practical book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot:

In the late 1880s, a French agricultural engineer named Max Ringelmann became obsessed with trying to make workers as efficient as possible. (…) One of Ringelmann’s studies involved asking people to pull on a rope to lift increasingly heavy weights. Perhaps not unreasonably, Ringelmann expected people in groups to work harder than those on their own. But the results revealed the opposite pattern. When working alone, individuals lifted around 185 pounds, but they managed only an average of 140 pounds per person when working as a group. [emphasis mine]

How is that possible? It’s due to diffusion of responsibility:

When people work on their own, their success or failure is entirely the result of their own abilities and hard work. If they do well, the glory is theirs. If they fail, they alone are accountable. However, add other people to the situation, and suddenly everyone stops trying so hard, safe in the knowledge that though individuals will not receive personal praise if the group does well, they can always blame others if it performs badly. [emphasis mine]

Lest you think this applies only to physical work—not at all. It’s the same for blue- and white-collar jobs, physical and creative alike, and across cultures:

Ask people to make as much noise as possible, and they make more on their own than in a group. Ask them to add rows of numbers, and the more people involved, the lower the work rate. Ask them to come up with ideas, and people are more creative away from the crowd. It is a universal phenomenon, emerging in studies conducted around the world, including in America, India, Thailand, and Japan.

Our experience with teamwork

My manager once said in a loose conversation “remember how we were thirty people total? I’ve a feeling we got much more work shipped back then than we do now with 200 people”. Can we test his hypothesis? Can we measure it? Hardly, since to measure correctly would require lots of metrics which we never have nor probably ever will collect.

My personal, best experience with teamwork was in preparing several conferences for Toastmasters in Poland, from the country-scale Toastmasters Leadership Institute to the half-continent scale of the biannual District 95 Conference. All of those teams truly rocked.

  • everyone had their own, individual space of responsibility. I did the website and all of IT—if I blew it, I had myself to blame.
  • we all respected boundaries. I had the final say on the website format and content, but I might’ve merely expressed my opinions on marketing.
  • we worked individually, collaborated on a case by case basis as needed and met every few weeks for two hours total to synchronize.
  • we were all volunteers with no formal ties, so the two or three persons who couldn’t keep pace with the rest were promptly removed and replaced.

Contrast that with the reality of Scrum or any other Agile teams in a typical company—large and small:

  • you’re supposed to share responsibility for the work; all code is everyone’s code.
  • every sprint you’re asked to spend a half-day to a day in meetings, drilling into everyone’s performance (also called a “retrospective”) and collectively brainstorming the work scope (known as “sprint planning”).
  • everyone is on some contract and even in countries were it’s legally easy to fire someone, it’s still psychologically and organizationally taxing.

I did way too many “sprints” like these, and I’ve been in every role: developer, product owner, scrum master, team leader. Every single time people were dying to get out of the meetings and get back to doing productive work on their own. This never worked the way it was supposed to.

Agile is simple, but it’s not easy

The traditional response to “Agile doesn’t work” is usually that, to the contrary, it does, you’re just not “agile enough” or you have diverged from Scrum. That indeed, it’s hard to do agile right and it requires practicing all the great virtues of discipline, courage etc.

Just because some people can finish an IronMan race in 8 hours, that doesn’t mean everyone can, and in fact, very few people will ever be able to complete the distance in any time. It’s a very personal experience, of talent, character and choices, just like work style.

Fair Exam

Why then do we continue to try and swim upstream? Work against human nature?

The solution to fight the western world’s epidemic of obesity is not to ask people to be more disciplined with their diets, but to find out what the natural eating habits of people are and to create food that accounts for them and is healthy. Starting with less sugar and processing would already fix the most outstanding issues.

At work, instead of asking people to “try harder”, study them. Find out what turns them on or off, and change the work environment to account for it. Are they not empathetic enough? Perhaps that’s because we’re not built for empathy in large groups. Try making the organization smaller.

I look back at some thinking I did years ago on teams and realize now I got it only half-right. Yes, teams need to share goals, otherwise there’s no point in calling them “teams”. But “sharing work” is not about collectively executing tasks—that’s counterproductive. It’s about agreeing on outcomes where many individual streams of responsibility come together and yes, we can and should confront anyone who doesn’t deliver their portion.

Paper has a BIG future

I’m as paperless as it gets. Most of my documents are on Google Drive, I take notes on tablets, read only books available on Kindle and never ever print out emails (can we please drop those “consider the environment…” pledges?). I even mock my wife for leaving written task lists, instead of setting up some cards on our shared Trello board. I’m pretty much like that guy:

The benefits of my digital lifestyle are self-evident. Some of the selfish ones:

  • paper has no search engine,
  • paper documents are only available when I carry them with me,
  • most paper books are clunkier than a Kindle.

The list goes on.

I even endure correcting the insane amount of typos I make, when writing on a touchscreen, though I’m about to put an end to this by acquiring the Microsoft Wedge Mobile Keyboard.

When someone presents me with my favorite gift – a book, I’ll still acquire it for Kindle before reading.

However… I’m a big believer in good, old paper. Turns out it’s excellent for comprehension:

[E]ven when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning. [emphasis mine]

Pam A. Mueller, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, Psychological Science 2014

That might explain why I had some of my best ideas when scribbling in my Moleskine. It’s free-form. I enhance text with drawings, annotations that would take way too much time to produce on any electronic device. Ask any “creative” person and there’s a good chance he or she uses Moleskines for these very reasons.


I will always print out my travel itineraries, boarding passes, despite having them on all mobile devices I carry. The paper is there when all tech fails, because by Murphy’s laws, batteries tend to die in the least convenient moments. Last thing I want is to be stranded on some airport because I can’t present my boarding pass.

Even in the realm of books, there’s hardly anything as smartly looking as a full bookshelf. Pay attention to the more serious interviews filmed in homes or offices. More often than not, the people talking will have books behind them because these create an aura of intelligence and wisdom. When educated people visit each others’ homes for the first time they’ll often walk over to the bookshelves to inspect them. You are what you read.

And while I love Trello for all the flexibility it adds to managing my work, there’s no way it can compete with a reminder Post-it note, placed on the exit door where I am guaranteed to see it before leaving in the morning, still half-asleep.

Finally, there are important processes that I think always must remain paper-based. Government elections are a prime example. The numerous examples of voting in the past conducted electronically or online come with a rich history of controversies and failures. Anybody who builds computer systems knows they’re never fail- or hack-proof. And government elections are far too important to accept any risk that somebody could abuse the technology.

I’m sure we’re yet about to see advances in technology, that will bridge the gap between paper and digital. Kindle already imitates the look and feel of paper to deliver a superb reading experience. Meanwhile, work is underway on highly interactive computers that will look like sheets of paper:

“The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

For now, going 100% paperless, while possible, would not only rob me of aesthetic pleasures and limit my creativity, but also increase the risk of getting into unpleasant situations in the least expected times. I’m happy to rely on paper for much of my work and will continue doing so.