Beyond the Build


To Achieve Collaboration, Create “Teams of One”

Over the last few days, unusually high winds and a lot of rain overtaxed the storm water controls of a recently completed building in Kansas. Water infiltrated the first level of the structure. We studied the problem a few days ago, making recommendations to our customer and the civil engineer. There was still more wind and rain this week. In the eyes of the occupants, there was no action. The parts where not coming together as a whole and no one was happy.

Top teams are supposed to work together, but sometimes things do not play out as planned. Acts of collaboration are not natural to everyone and some may not try as hard when there are others in the group to pull their weight.

Take tug-of-war for example. I ran across an article recently that details psychologist Alan Ingham’s simulation of the game and the effort level he measured. Would a person tug harder if he was pulling the rope alone, or if he was on a team? The person who thought he was alone, “making things happen,” pulled about 20% harder. This phenomena is called the Ringelmann effect, named after an engineer who conducted a similar study with the same outcome. One exerts less effort when in a group, at times, than working alone.

In business, the magic comes when you figure out how to get teams to truly collaborate efforts, pulling together as if they are one-person teams. How is this accomplished?

One solution is to keep the teams smaller, making individuals more accountable. When people are in smaller groups, they feel like they can ask more questions and they establish relationships with each other. I’ve always said that you never really know what a team is all about until the chips fall. And when the team goes through several experiences like this ,they will either get better or fail to make the whole greater than the parts.

Back to our situation in Kansas this week. We were between a rock and a hard place: Should we wait on the engineering solution or help the occupant of the building? In the end, we decided that the occupant should win and we needed to do something sooner than later. We are moving ahead with a fix and it’s not so beyond what the engineer will recommend anyway. It’s a tough call sometimes, between waiting or enduring the possibilities of additional frustration and an unhappy customer. Hopefully we made the right call.

Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.