by Rick Brenner
Working in teams is necessary in most modern collaborations, but teamwork does carry risks. Here are some risks worth mitigating.
Three simple carabiners. A carabiner is a metal loop device used in climbing, rescue, and other safety-critical situations. Usually, one passes a rope or harness piece through the loop to secure it to something capable of suspending the load, which is usually a person. To make it convenient to pass the rope through the metal loop, the carabiner has a "gate" that opens to enable the rope to enter the loop without having to thread the rope through the loop end-first. In the pictured carabiners, the gates are spring-loaded. That is, one pushes the rope against the gate from the outside, and after the gate swings open, and the rope passes it, the gate springs shut capturing the rope until one presses on the gate from the outside once more, opening it. After the rope is captured, only a rare kind of accidental event can unintentionally free it.
So it is with deadlocks in teamwork. They form easily, but only a rare kind of accidental event can break the deadlock unintentionally. To intentionally break a deadlock that formed because of a dependency loop usually requires coordinated action and much intra-team communication.
Photo (cc) by Meanos.
Teams enable us to do things we could never accomplish working individually — or if we could accomplish them, they would just take too long to be worth doing. For that reason alone, we need teams. But working in teams carries with it risks that arise much more often than when we work as individuals. Here's a short catalog of these risks.
- Runaway damage risk
- The power of teamwork amplifies not only the team's ability to do good, but also its ability to do damage. When we produce wrong-headed output for whatever reason, we must undo the damage we do. But before recognizing what happened, a team can do much more damage than an individual can.
- Interpersonal conflict risk
- When there are interpersonal problems in teams, everyone's productivity can be degraded. And the conflict might be unrelated to the work at hand. It can be a residual effect of a previous effort, or it can arise from something as unrelated to the work as unfounded rumors of changes in office assignments.
- Decision-making risk
- The word team means different things to different people. For example, with respect to decision processes, some of us believe that team means that each person's opinion is of equal weight. Others are searching only for work to do, and will do that work without question. Teams must define their decision processes for corresponding classes of situations. If they don't, each member will assume that their preferred decision process is in force. That difference in expectations can lead to interpersonal conflict. See "Decisions, Decisions: Part I," Point Lookout for November 17, 2004, for a summary of common decision processes.
- Coordination risk
- Teamwork is inherently parallel. The working members of the team assume that the parts they're working on will fit with the parts other people are working on. If a problem develops, and one of the parts has to be revised, some of the work already completed might have to be done again. This possibility is much less likely when a single person does all the work, because that person is presumably aware of all that has been done or will be done. Coordination risk is highest when interpersonal communication is the least effective, or when uncertainty is greatest.
- Wariness risk
- Inherent in The power of teamwork amplifies
not only the team's ability to do
good, but also its ability to do damageparallelism is the need to trust that teammates working on other elements are honoring their commitments. That is, we give our all to one portion of the work, trusting teammates to do the same with theirs. If trust is absent, and people become wary, they devote some of their efforts to protecting themselves from blame. That is what makes wariness so expensive.
- Intra-task deadlock risk
- Within the team's task, deadlock occurs when some members of the team are waiting for the output of one or more of the rest of the team. The whole thing can lock up if a dependency loop develops. If a subtask is late because of unanticipated difficulty or lost workdays, the rest of the team can become stuck.
Team-based development is different from the scaled-up effort of a single individual. Think it through carefully. Top Next Issue
Projects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just USD 19.95. Order Now! .
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Project Management
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
- Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"
- If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
- Nepotism, Patronage, Vendettas, and Workplace Espionage
- Normally, you terminate or reassign team members who actually inhibit progress. Here are some helpful insights and tactics to use when termination or reassignment is impossible.
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: Part II
- Communication can be problematic for any team, especially under pressure. But virtual teams face challenges that are less common in face-to-face teams. Here's Part II of a little catalog with some recommendations.
- Managing Non-Content Risks: Part I
- When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets things done.
See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
- And on February 11: Bottlenecks: Part II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern. Available here and by RSS on February 11
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Human-Centered Risk Management
- Most of us can assess technological risks, but risks related to human behavior tend to resist our best efforts. This session provides a framework for evaluating risks related to the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations and people generally. Human-centered risk differs from technological or market risk, because objective evaluation requires acknowledging personal and organizational limitations and failures. Since some of those limitations and failures might apply to the people assessing the risks, or to their superiors, there's a tendency to deny them or to explain them away. Our approach examines capability, organization, context, risk mitigation, and workplace politics. It has tools for guiding the assessment and management of human-centered risk, and we show how to extend these tools to suit your situation. You'll learn how to identify sources of risk in human behavior; recognize systemic and individual barriers to acknowledging risk; assess the effects of organizational turbulence; determine the risk associated with inappropriate internal risk transfer; estimate the effects of team dysfunction, toxic conflict and turnover; and measure the impact of workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Decision-Making for Team Leaders
- Effective group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
- Mastery of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: