St Peter's Basilica. Notre Dame. The United States Capitol Building. What do these three iconic buildings have in common? They were all erected by “master builders”—part architect, part engineer, part building site supervisor—who designed them and oversaw their construction from start to finish. From medieval times to the Victorian era, this was the primary way buildings were constructed.
Master builders were true renaissance men—women were largely excluded from the field—like famed British architect Sir Christopher Wren (in addition to his extensive portfolio of churches, palaces, and libraries, he founded the Royal Society and taught Astronomy at Oxford). They had to understand every aspect of construction, from mathematics to masonry, enabling them to coordinate a team of skilled tradespeople to realize their vision. While the master builder would sometimes change over the course of the project—and often did, in the case of grand projects that took decades, if not centuries, to complete—there was always one point person in charge—someone who not only understood the vision for the whole but how every component fit into it.
But all that changed at the beginning of the 20th century.
As our knowledge of architecture and construction grew, it became far too complex for any one person to handle. It was beyond human capacity for one person to be “master” of it all. Instead, a profusion of specialists took the place of the master builder: architects, engineers, brick and stonemasons, glass technicians, electricians, the list goes on—all experts of their own domains. And it's not just construction. As human knowledge grows ever deeper and more complex, similar transformations have occurred across nearly every field, from medicine to business. In order to succeed in today's knowledge economy, we don't need master builders—we need specialists who can work together, joining their expertise to solve complex problems collaboratively. We need strong, collaborative teams.
While there's a growing recognition of the importance of teamwork in completing ambitious projects, we have a very human tendency to celebrate remarkable individuals over group achievement. Nowhere is this more evident than in Silicon Valley. There, the narrative of the lone genius proliferates. Companies seek to hire “10x-ers” and brilliant engineers aspire to become household names like Elon Musk (despite his sometimes questionable tweets).
Yet research suggests the lone genius is a mythical figure—or at least, an exaggerated one. As a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article reports, a brilliant new idea or discovery is only the first step of many: “For any innovation to have an impact, there needs to be a discovery on an important insight; a viable, scalable solution; and, finally, a business model that allows the new idea to be adopted.” And crucially, innovators rarely act alone: In order to succeed, they need teams to support them.
It's a misconception that comes from the way we've historically treated work. While team collaboration is as old as humanity itself—humans have been working together in groups since our hunter-gatherer days—teamwork in the workplace is new. When the modern concept of work emerged around the time of the industrial revolution, companies organized around individuals, not teams. It's only as our world has grown more complex that organizations have restructured once more around groups.
This return to a team-based structure is strategically significant. It “enable[s] more rapid, flexible, and adaptive responses to the unexpected,” according to organizational psychologists Steve W.J. Kozlowski and Daniel R. Ilgen. They define a modern team as:(a) Two or more individuals who; (b) socially interact (face-to-face or, increasingly, virtually); (c) possess one or more common goals; (d) are brought together to perform organizationally relevant tasks; (e) exhibit interdependencies with respect to workflow, goals, and outcomes; (f) have different roles and responsibilities; and (g) are together embedded in an encompassing organizational system, with boundaries and linkages to the broader system context and task environment.
Probably the most important thing I've learned up here is the importance of teamwork.
—NASA Astronaut Douglas Wheelock
Team collaboration is at the heart of everything we do as a species, both in terms of work and family life. Strong teamwork has enabled us to accomplish incredible things, like the Apollo 13 mission, the greatest space rescue in history. But poor teamwork has also caused enormous tragedy and suffering, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) slow and disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina. And the stakes are high: “Failures of team leadership, coordination, and communication are well-documented causes of the majority of air crashes, medical errors, and industrial disasters,” note psychologists Kozlowski and Ilgen in their research.
Failures of team leadership, coordination, and communication are well-documented causes of the majority of air crashes, medical errors, and industrial disasters.
—Psychologists Steve W.J. Kozlowski and Daniel R. Ilgen.
The modern business landscape also faces unique pressures that make teamwork more important than ever for economic success. Competition and consolidation are on the rise, forcing companies to become more innovative, agile, and adaptive. In order to meet these challenges, organizations need to bring together groups of highly skilled individuals to work together to solve problems and invent new solutions. Team collaboration is essential for success in today's economy.
In addition to increased agility and competitive success, team collaboration provides numerous other benefits for businesses and employees. These include:
Humans are social animals—so it's not surprising that positive, collaborative relationships are an important component of workplace satisfaction. A Taipei Medical University study found that collaborative relationships are one of the top two most important predictors of job satisfaction among healthcare providers. The other is high-quality patient care. Employees are happiest when they feel like they're part of a high-functioning team that's doing good work.
While the myth of the “lone genius” proliferates in our society, emerging research suggests that it's diverse teams, not solo innovators, who actually make progress and disrupt the status quo. According to research by social scientist Scott E. Page, teams with a range of different perspectives—this includes professional backgrounds as well as demographics—outperform groups of like-minded thinkers. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, but a diverse team has a whole toolbox.
Teams with a range of different perspectives—professional backgrounds as well as demographics—outperform groups of like-minded thinkers.
Two heads really are better than one. An American Psychological Association (APA) study of teamwork in the military found that a cohesive team (ie. one in which there are strong bonds among team members) is more effective than the sum of its individual members. “Teams can absorb more task demands, perform with fewer errors, and exceed performance based on linear composites of individual performance,” study authors Gerald F. Goodwin, Nikki Blacksmith, and Meredith R. Coats write. In short, a strong team working together consistently outperforms the sum total of the same individuals working alone.
Diverse teams that represent their customer base in terms of demographic distribution are better able to reach their audiences and empathize with customers, according to a McKinsey study. This is of key strategic importance, as the business landscape is increasingly heterogeneous: Women make 70-80 percent of purchasing decisions and the purchasing power of minority ethnic groups as well as LGBTQ+ folks is on the rise. “A top team that reflects these powerful demographic groups will have a better understanding of their market decision behavior and how to impact,” concludes McKinsey.
Psychologists J. Richard Hackman and Charles G. Morris devised one of the most common models for understanding how teams function in the 1970s, the Input-Process-Output (IPO) model. The model demonstrates that many factors—at the individual, environmental, and group level—can influence a team's productivity and cohesiveness.
The model is a way of understanding what factors influence team performance and how to help teams to perform better. Broadly speaking, organizations can optimize team performance by tweaking a team's inputs or changing their group interaction processes.
While the IPO model is still useful for understanding team interactions, there has been growing recognition that reality is often more complex than the model. In 2017, a group of psychologists updated and expanded Hackman and Morris' model—rather than thinking of team effectiveness as a series of inputs and processes, they encapsulated it as groupings of facets which overlap and inform one another.
While less straightforward, this model better summarizes the complex network of factors that goes into team effectiveness. In the next section, we'll highlight some of these key features and the role they play in creating effective teams.