This week your correspondent has been reading Nate Silver’s superb book The Signal And The Noise. Silver was the guy who built a remarkably prescient statistical model to predict the outcome of the most recent US presidential elections.
Silver’s book is engrossing, more or less, and I can’t imagine any workplace that wouldn’t be enriched by it.
So there I was, chewing through the pages on my Kindle when I suddenly read something that brought me to a screeching mental halt. It was somewhere in the final third of the book. Silver said something that took a certain idea of the workplace I had cherished for many years and turned it upside down.
But first a little context. A few months into my first post-business school job, I participated in an orientation programme held inside a small ballroom at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai. A bunch of us fresh recruits from all over the Asia-Pacific region was subject to three days of presentations, drills, mock projects, lectures and buffet lunches.
During one of these exercises your correspondent was asked to work with a team of other Indian and Australian freshers on a case study. One of the Indian chaps immediately assumed the mantle of leadership, split the assignment into five equal pieces and handed them out to each one of us. The Australians were flabbergasted.
“That is not how a team works!” he said. “We can’t just work independently and then put all the pieces together! We must tackle this together, at the same time, like a proper team. Mate!”
We Indian fellows looked at each other first in bewilderment—“but this is always how we worked in business school”—and then in irritation—“aa gaya Melbourne se enthu cutlet”.
But deep inside I knew he was right. I felt a little sheepish. And not just because he was a six-foot-two bronzed god of a man with blonde hair, and chest muscles that rippled as he strategically brutalized a flip chart with a marker pen.
Back in business school, we really had made a mockery of team work. Irrespective of how big a project was the team only ever met twice. Once to break the project into pieces. And once again to put it back together again.
It was a matter of convenience.
Between course work, sleep, social lives, downloading pirated Friends episodes, and membership in at least half a dozen different project teams, it was virtually impossible to find a time slot for group work that suited everybody. So time after time, project after project, we repeated the cut-and-paste-together team process over and over again.
That session in Mumbai changed me. Since then I’ve always tried to adopt this more “authentic” method of teamwork. I became one of those irritating people who booked conference rooms and forced teams of wretched co-workers to “bond” and “brainstorm” and “let’s all just absorb everyone’s inputs before sharing feedback or calling each other names”.
And then I read this in Silver’s book:
“There is almost certainly some value in the idea that different members of a group can learn from one another’s expertise. But this introduces the possibility of groupthink and herding… Empirical studies of consensus-driven predictions have found mixed results, in contrast to a process wherein individual members of a group submit independent forecasts and those are averaged or aggregated together, which can always be counted on to improve predictive accuracy.”
Silver is basically saying that when it comes to things like making forecasts or predictions teams may actually be better off aggregating the forecasts of individuals rather than asking the team to arrive at a single consensus conclusion. He quotes studies, and I went through a few of them, that shore up this theory nicely.
Now it was my turn to be flabbergasted a la Australien.
What if all along my business school method had actually been the right one? And what if the more fashionable, “sacred” notion of teamwork that is touted by organizations, leadership manuals and HR sessions actually has less utility in comparison?
At least in some cases.
According to Silver and other researchers there are several reasons why the disaggregated team can work better at certain things. For instance, if teams have one or two really charismatic members they can sway the opinions of others. Also there is the problem of herding, where team members suppress their own dissent and fall in line with others for fear of standing out too much. Introverts, for instance, may choose silence over intervening in a bad decision.
The implications of this for the workplace, I feel, are staggering. All of us are inundated with a notion of teamwork that involves spending time together and sharing. Some of us are chosen for our jobs on the basis of group discussion (GD) and team exercises. I know some smart people who simply can’t ace a “GD”. All this research seems to suggest that this approach is by no means universally valid. Maybe teams are actually better off letting their members work on their own more often.
Do you work in a job that is highly team-prone? How is that working for you? Kindly send individual emails.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama