Teams, Shared Goals And The Fallacy Of Additive Collaboration

One of the often-cited traits of “real teams” is that they have shared goals. I’m not convinced that the distinction between real teams and other kinds of teams is valid, but that’s for another post. What I am clear about is this: While shared goals are important, they aren’t what makes a team effective or more collaborative or, if you ask me, “real.” Shared goals, particularly numerical targets (5% growth, e.g.) spark more individual effort, not more teamwork. In many cases when shared goals are achieved, they’re then chalked up to “great teamwork” when in fact there was relatively little of it. I call this “The Fallacy of Additive Collaboration” and I see it all the time. 

At the heart of the Fallacy is the mistaken idea that we have achieved collaboration nirvana when we add up everyone’s individual results and they equal the shared goal we set. The best example of how the Fallacy plays out is in a Sales organization. Let’s say I’m leading a Sales team dedicated to one large customer. My team and I share a top-line revenue growth target for the year. We’re aiming for 10% growth compared to last year. There are five salespeople working for me; each one represents one of the major brands my company produces. Each of them has a different growth target for their brand or product. Some of their targets are higher than 10%, some lower. When they’re all added up, though, they will equal our overall 10% sales goal target for the year. So, we have our shared number and everyone knows how they’ll contribute to it. We even have incentives, so that if we exceed our shared growth target we’ll all get a bigger bonus. Is this going to drive awesome teamwork or what? Maybe. If you’re one of my salespeople, how are you likely to respond to these goals and incentives?

You’re most likely to do what you know best and focus on the brand and products you sell to ensure that you make your contribution to the overall target. You’re NOT more likely to collaborate with our fellow salespeople, to help them hit their targets. Heck, they know their brands, they know how to sell. They’ll do their thing, you’ll do yours, and in the end, it will all add to and maybe even exceed that 10% overall number. “Woo- hoo! Go team, go!”

You can see why I call it the “Fallacy of Additive Collaboration.” Not only is this approach not teamwork, it reinforces individual effort at the expense of collaboration. The truth is that shared goals and many incentives drive more, not less, individually focused behavior. We’ll feel all warm and teamy when we make our shared numbers. We associate that good feeling with what we’re calling “teamwork,” when in fact those feelings were the result of our individual exertions and those of our colleagues.  That’s not teamwork; confusing it with teamwork obscures the most powerful aspects and the promise of true, intentional teamwork and collaboration.

Sometimes what’s required is a collection of great individual efforts. In fact, some level of individual effort is always required. Don’t force collaboration where it won’t add value. In cases where an orchestrated collection of individual efforts is called for, recognize this and act accordingly. But don’t pretend it’s teamwork. If you have decided that collaboration really is appropriate, you need to be clear about how you will support and drive it. Shared goals, while necessary, aren’t the way to do that. What drives collaboration and engages people’s collaborative attention is shared accountability for real work. Teamwork will have the best chance to thrive where a group has called out the work that will benefit from collaboration and then contracted for how they’ll work together. At the same time, these groups identify the work that won’t benefit from collaboration and allow individuals to get that work done most effectively.

Shared goals are an indispensable part of organizational life. They have a role to play in ensuring that we meet the commitments we make. They are not, however, a key to collaboration. If you want to unlock effective teamwork, figure out what specific work requires collective effort, agree who needs to be a part of that effort, and create accountable commitments for executing it.

Carlos Valdes-Dapena