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Is Teamwork Wasting Half of Your Week?

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It is midday on Friday. You just came back from your weekly team meeting. It lasted two hours and half of the content was not really relevant to you or your job. People gave status updates and told other members of the team what they have been working on this week. It was vaguely interesting but there was nothing you could do with the information, so it seemed like a lot of time was wasted.

You open your email account and find 40 emails. You know from experience that only four them are really important but it's still going to take you the best part of an hour to read, file, delete or respond to them. A lot of them are c.c.s from other members of the team keeping you informed -- one of them even tells you what is for lunch at an office you never visit. Another of the emails tells you that an important decision you've been waiting for has to be made by the team as a whole and so the decision can't be made until next week when you have another meeting.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Our team survey of over 4,000 people working in large organisations tells us that they spend two days a week in meetings and 50 percent is irrelevant; and they receive around 70 emails per day, of which over 75 percent are irrelevant.

One of the main reasons for this is an unthinking attachment to teamwork. Teamwork has become a religion. Many organisations have teamwork as a corporate value. People are recruited and appraised for their ability to work in teams. We are sent on 'team building' courses and managers are instructed to run weekly or monthly team meetings to make sure information is shared. In many organisations, if you are told "you are not a team player," it is a kiss of death for your career.

But what if teamwork is the problem not the solution? Do we really need to share all of this information? Does teamwork actually improve results? Are collective decisions better decisions?
If you've never even questioned the value of teamwork, then you may be guilty of this "unthinking attachment to teams" -- and it is damaging to individuals and to organisations. If you spend just one day a week in unnecessary meetings this means that you could spend nine years of your life in pointless work. More positively you can win back a day a week by just not attending.

But what if your boss is also attached to teamwork? It can be hard to explain that your boss's meeting is irrelevant and you no longer want to attend -- especially if you are right.

In our training programs we distinguish between star groups and spaghetti teams.
  • Star groups are made up of a number of individuals with similar skills, reporting to the same boss. In star groups one-to-one communication between individuals and their boss at the centre in a hub and spoke pattern is usually enough, there is little need for them to collaborate collectively as each individual is doing their own work.
  • Spaghetti teams are where everyone is connected to everyone else, people have complementary skills and need to work intensively together to achieve a truly collaborative result. This type of spaghetti team working is really important, but it is relatively rare. In reality most work is done by individuals getting on with their own jobs.

Why not talk to your boss about whether the content of their meetings is relevant to you? If you want to collect some information to start this, try making a note of all the topics you discuss at your meeting and record who participates in each discussion. Normally only a small number of people participate in many meeting topics -- the others may be wasting their time being there.

Once armed with the information, explain the difference between spaghetti and star cooperation.

Then when your meeting descends into discussion of topics of interest to only two or three people, you can catch the eye of the person running the meeting and ask "Is this really spaghetti?" By getting rid of star group topics that should be handled one-to-one, you could win back a day a week of your precious time.

If you break the idea of teamwork being the only way of cooperating, you will also find the number of your emails reduces, as people realise they don't need to tell you things you don't need to know. Fewer people need to be involved in your decisions which make them faster -- and usually better.

So stand up against unthinking teamwork! It could be wasting half of your week. Good luck.

If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy the Life in a Matrix podcast, Too much cooperation going on