The Fallacy of Teamwork Part II: Michael Jordan Doesn’t Need a Memo
In my continuing critique of the notorious practice of applying team-sports models to
business work it is useful to ask what neuroscience has to say on the subject.
The tool that makes all teamwork possible is communication. Neuroscience and brain imaging studies make it clear that the kind of communication that occurs in sports differs profoundly from the kind that occurs with symbolic thought used in business projects. (1). The buddy who watches your back on the battlefield doesn’t need a memo to figure out what to do if there is an incoming RPG. There may be only a few seconds to react. Training, instinct and reflexes kick in, exactly as they do on the basketball court or the soccer field.
The language which facilitates physical skill focuses on spatial-temporal reasoning, not symbolic thought or language. Michael Jordan doesn’t need a memo either. This language has a several million year head start over human language, which has been around for only 100,000 years. (2 & 3).
Athletes use a different and older language than employees collaborating on a business memo. The units of information exchanged differ and the way the information is processed in the brain differs. Symbolic thought would slow down basketball players while the spatial reasoning skills involved in passing the ball are useless to workers drafting a memo.
Collaborative projects of any kind require the following questions to be answered: Who does what, when, where, and how? These are real questions (the “five friends” of poet and author Rudyard Kipling) that must be answered by real people accepting real responsibility. The error of reification, of thinking that ‘the team will write the memo’ is always invoked whenever the word ‘team‘ is used this way.
For collaborative mental labor the subjects to be charged with responsibility better have a pulse and a brain. In this sense teams don’t even exist: There is no such thing as a team. This is why I prefer the word ‘collaborate’ over teamwork. The word ‘team’ is semantically inadequate.
But there is one special kind of teamwork that is better than any other and uses a language that evolved in vertebrates many hundreds of millions of years ago - this is the interactions that occur between neurons inside the brain. Brain cells communicate with one another very well. Communication between people is slower and always more difficult than thinking. The greatest teamwork in the world is what goes on inside our own heads.
What if the neurons inside the brain communicated with one another with exactly the same degree of efficiency as human communication? Such a brain would be a disaster. Conversely, what if workers collaborating on a project could communicate with exactly the same degree of efficiency as neurons talking to each other inside the brain? This is an unknown ideal of teamwork, and we are very, very far from it.
Perhaps for these reasons the highest levels of human achievement in fields requiring symbolic thought are dominated by individuals, not teams. Human communication and the collaboration which depends on it has a long way to go to catch up with the speed of thought. The silent and instinctive language spoken by athletes is no help with business projects.
In order to think outside the box you must first step out of the box!
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