Why that summer tradition of a Tug-of-War and a hundred-year-old French experiment proves the challenge of corporate teamwork.
This Fourth of July I stood on a spit of sand and watched teams of men and women pull a rope from either side of a narrow channel. This was more than entertainment. My goal was to see whether corporate teamwork is as effective as managers and executives often believe.
For the record this was the Bolinas-Stinson Beach Tug-of-War, an annual contest pitting teams of local men and women. Victory in this California North Coast battle is equivalent to winning the Stanford Cal Football game. Though only a basketball court-long stretch of choppy green seawater separates these towns they couldn't be farther apart. Bolinas is a tie-dyed, to-hell-with-the-system enclave for aging hippies. Stinson is where many corporate San Franciscans sip chardonnay in their fashionable weekend homes. The towns have a long-standing mutual animosity.
Since many of the Stinsonites actually work in corporations, I figured that would be the best place to see teamwork in action. As the co-author with Marc Hershon of I Hate People!, a book that challenges the entrenched paradigm of traditional corporate teamwork, I had a dog in the fight. Our research shows that individuals we call Soloists, and small Ensembles of two to four people are the way to get stuff done in business today.
Big group activities, as I was about to see firsthand, seldom go as planned. Many of the Stinson men had neglected to bring gloves, and though the Stinson women had just finished their losing tug, they weren't keen on sharing. In other words, no manager had arranged for a transfer of interdepartmental resources, i.e., gloves.
The thick rope stretched out a good eighty feet on the Stinson side, but oddly the men clustered like insects at the tail end. Screaming spectators yelled for them to take up the open positions closer to the water but few listened. Was it fear of failure? Their performance would be more exposed up front. And if a team loses, you can literally get pulled into the ocean.
Roughly 25 men stood on the Stinson side, but half lacked gloves and a third were so tightly packed at the end that they couldn't get their legs into it. The 9 a.m. start was just seconds away.
The rope swayed back and forth, the middle dipping in the channel, as the crowd screamed for the men to spread out. Only one man responded, running to the front. He stripped off his shirt to the delight of the women, and was clearly ready for action.
The tug-of-war has long been considered a classic contest to demonstrate the difficulty of maintaining human effort, dedication and coordination as the numbers of participants increase. Nearly a century ago, as we wrote in our book, Maximilian Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, devised a simple experiment. He tested how hard one man could pull, and then teams from two to eight. The results were astonishing. They should give pause to any manager or executive preparing to throw clots of men or women at critical business challenges.
The horn blew and the men pulled. Tug-of-wars are won or lost in your legs and rear end. Your power is below your waist. But half the men on the Stinson side were standing upright, pulling mainly with their arms. They'd lose position, circle back in and then reach at the rope, again pulling only with their forearms. Others had tossed t-shirts onto the rope to grip, their gloveless hands already burned. Two minutes had passed, and Stinson had actually gained three feet. Reality sunk in. Half of the men at the tail end were barely pulling. The men lurched toward Bolinas, losing several feet. As men lost their grip, they circled back away from the water's edge, and tried to jump back in at the crowded end.
No one was in charge.
Ten feet from the chilly waters, the one brawny, shirtless man fought to hold his ground. None of those men hardly pulling at the end of the rope came to his rescue. I stood only a few feet away along with the hundreds of clamoring spectators, and you could see on their faces that most were only half trying and had given up.
Ringelmann's experiment had already proved this. His study showed that three men only pulled as hard as two and a half men, and astonishingly eight only pulled as hard as four individuals. Today this is known as The Ringelman Effect: The more people in a group, the less each one contributes to the group goal.
Far from synergy, group effort creates an inverse productivity ratio. The more people you throw at the problem, the more you lose. The declines are the result of what's come to be called coordination losses or "social loafing."
On this spit of sand I could see these failures: Men lacking skills or direction; Men foolishly not moving to a better position to get some work done; Men content to only appear to be working. It reminded me of what I've seen so often in the companies I've studied when they attempt to tackle problems with masses of bodies. The appearance of work -- scheduling, committees and endless meetings -- wins out over getting things done.
Near the water's edge, the strapping man pulled with all his might. With a few more individuals like him who knows what might have happened. But Stinson had a team much like those that dominate Fortune 500 companies. A few men at the tail end lost their grip and quit. The rope slithered through many hands and the strapping man fought till he was in the icy water, the battle lost.
Bolinas, a quirky town of hippies not enamored of teamwork, had once again won.
Jonathan Littman is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE! (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Marc Hershon. A Contributing Editor at Playboy, Jonathan is the co-author of the best selling Art of Innovation.
Follow Jonathan Littman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jonlittman