By Stephen R. Balzac
March 31, 2011
In Monty Python’s classic comedy, “The Life of Brian,” there is a scene fairly early in the movie when the people of Jerusalem have decided that Brian is the Messiah and are standing waiting on the street outside his window. Brian’s mother screams out at the crowd, “You are all individuals.”
The crowd replies: “We are all individuals.”
A pause, and then a lone voice yells, “I’m not.”
This is typical Monty Python absurdist humor, but it makes a very serious point. What is standing outside Brian’s window is not a group of individuals, it’s a mob. A mob is a group in which individuality is lost in the urge to conform to the group. As the movie progresses, we see the mob do various ludicrous things as they follow their unwilling prophet. Brian’s followers are, of course, convinced that they are acting according to his instructions and executing his desires, no matter how much Brian screams to the contrary. This being a Python film, the sequence of events is absolutely hilarious.
In a business, not so much. Unfortunately, the tendency for a group to lose individuality in the service of a charismatic leader or a particularly enticing corporate vision is not restricted to comedy. At one large software company, the dynamic became quite extreme: employees were expected to arrive at a certain time, eat lunch at a certain time, visit a certain set of restaurants, leave at a certain time, and so forth. No deviation was tolerated. The mantra was, “We’re a team. We do everything alike!”
Sound fanciful? I wish it were.
The problem is that a team that loses its individuality is not a team, it’s a mob or a rabble. It can be a very disciplined mob or rabble, sort of like the Storm Troopers in “Star Wars,” but it’s still a mob. Like the Storm Troopers, it’s very good at dealing with routine situations, but isn’t very good at dealing with the unexpected: new tactics from the rebels or, if you prefer, new competitors or existing competitors adopting new strategies. The other problem is that when a group focuses on homogeneity, it loses its ability for the strengths of some to compensate for the weaknesses of others: the Storm Troopers, for example, cannot successfully shoot the broad side of a barn.
At a different high-tech company, the only engineers hired matched a very precise and very limited profile. Not only did you have to solve a certain set of puzzles, you had to solve them in just the right way. Alternate solutions were not tolerated. This created a team that was very good at creating intricate, convoluted algorithms, and a user interface that was equally intricate and convoluted.
None of these situations are as extreme as that portrayed in “The Life of Brian,” but then again, they aren’t as funny either.
Later in the movie, we see the opposite end of the spectrum: the members of the People’s Front of Judea are so busy drawing insignificant distinctions between each of their positions that they are not functioning as a team. Rather, they are a horde. Each person is operating according to their own individual needs and goals, with no actual concern about the goals or strategy of the group. In a horde, everyone is a hero, entitled to his or her share of the plunder and devil take the hindmost. Cooperation is almost accidental, and the group is likely to break apart at the slightest disagreement: the People’s Front of Judea can’t even quite figure out why the Judean People’s Front broke off, but is quite happy to yell, “Splitters!”
At a certain manufacturing company, each department was totally focused on doing its own job. None of the departments considered how their actions or decisions affected the others. Within each department, much the same thing was happening at an individual level. Rather than figuring out how to work together, they spent their time blaming one another for the inevitable failures. Fixing this issue saved the company in question several hundred thousand dollars a year.
The challenge, of course, is to find the middle ground, where the individual and the team are in balance. While it’s extremely difficult to find the exact middle, anywhere in the general vicinity works pretty well. Peak performance occurs when people are committed to the goals of the company and the team, and are also free to pursue their personal goals and work the way they want to work. Is it easy? No: less than one team in five ever gets there. However, it sure beats a horde or a mob of people chanting, “We are all individuals.”
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” For more information, contact [email protected].