Month: March 2016

CollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm managementLeadershipPeople skills

Is teamwork the same as collaboration?

 

Earlier this week Listen Like a Lawyer discussed Google’s teamwork study investigating the qualities of effective teams. In the post I mentioned that teamwork is so important in part because many cases are too complex for one person to manage. One bit of feedback on the post agreed that teamwork is “vital now for successful legal practices.”

Shortly thereafter I ran across this post from Lisa Needham at the Lawyerist, “Too Much Teamwork is Terrible.” The post ends with a plea:

Ban teamwork. Or at least reduce it drastically.

Both the Google article in praise of effective teams and the Lawyerist post against teams cite the same Harvard Business Review study concluding “the time spent by managers and employees on collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”

So if teamwork is so good, why is it so bad?

I think the real issue is the difference between formal teams and informal collaboration throughout an organization.

The Google study profiled in the New York Times seemed to focus on formal work groups—groups formed by assignment to address some specific task or role over time. These work groups seem analogous to a group of lawyers assigned to a client service team or a specific deal, trial, or other project.

The Harvard Business Review article on collaboration appears to be addressing a much broader phenomenon. It’s not just about the dynamics inside individual work groups assigned to discrete projects, but also about collaboration throughout an organization. Collaboration may take the form of sharing information, sharing social resources, or sharing one’s own time and energy—which, unlike the first two categories of collaboration, is a finite and exhaustible resource. These can happen within a formal team or in broader, more diffuse ways throughout an organization. A person who is willing to collaborate with others may be subject to “escalating citizenship” in which workers who want to help become so over-burdened that they become a burned-out bottleneck. To quote the article, the “virtuous cycle” of collaboration turns “vicious.”

I’m no Adam Grant, but if this distinction is correct, then the Google study and the Lawyerist post are also both correct. Complex long-term problems and strategic goals cannot be solved by lone-wolf lawyers. Therefore, lawyers working in formal teams can benefit from studying their group norms and seeking to collaborate most effectively. These types of teams should not be disbanded or reduced in scope.

On the other hand, managers should monitor the collaborative burdens across their organization to avoid inefficient, inequitable demands on “extra milers” (quoting the HBR article) being asked to collaborate beyond the scope of their roles.

Of course there is a challenging question in the middle of this: work groups formed not for direct legal service but for internal firm/agency management. In other words, firm committees. These groups can certainly benefit from studying dynamics in the spirit of the Google study. But the HBR study and Lisa Needham’s critique raise the question: what is the reward structure of the firm or organization, and is collaborative committee work compromising individuals’ capacity to participate in that reward structure?

For insight into this question, I would first recommend Helen Wan’s great novel The Partner Track.

On a more quantitative note, the HBR study suggests collecting and assessing data about who is doing what. It also suggests employee surveys and 360 feedback. To take a 50,000-foot view of these suggestions, it seems that one way to begin to address this question is by listening.

 

 

Clinical legal educationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm managementLaw practiceLegal communication

Teamwork for lawyers

The thing I’ve most wanted to share here in recent months has been “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” published in the New York Times Magazine’s recent Work Issue. Building perfect teams—or at least more effective ones—is pretty important for the legal profession. For law firms, the complexity of many legal matters demands collaborative work. Yet client teams—and other types of teams such as deal teams and trial teams—are more likely to fail without a good understanding of team dynamics. And “law students baulk at the idea of group work.”

 

To understand why some of its teams performed better than others, Google launched a large study. At first no patterns emerged. Eventually, the key issue was something a bit more abstract than any specific metric. The issue was “group norms”:

Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound.

The impact of group norms on team performance was critical. It could make a team of individually “average” performers out-perform other groups. And it could make a team of individual rock stars perform poorly.

So if effective teams could be built upon consensus of any type—either to argue all the time or to build consensus all the time—then is there really any content to the idea of effective group norms? Actually, yes. The Google study found two common traits of good teams. This is where listening comes in:

Actually, yes. The Google study found two common traits of good teams. This is where listening comes in:

First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’
Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test.

The broader impact of these two traits is that team members felt “psychological safety.” The New York Times article cited a study by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson describing psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

This article and the concepts it describes should, in my view, be required reading for any law school activity based on teams. It seems like a pretty good idea for law-firm managers as well. The lead researcher on Google’s Project Aristotle study became interested in the topic while attending graduate business school. She had one team that didn’t click, didn’t exactly fail but also didn’t prosper, and didn’t stick together for future projects. And she had another team that clicked and succeeded in competitive environments even though the group dynamics didn’t feel internally competitive.

Law students who’ve done any sort of group work and lawyers working collaboratively have similar stories. This article helps to explain why these teams end up the way they do. And it begins to address even more difficult questions about taking steps to create effective team dynamics from the outset and to make existing teams more effective.