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.



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