Every Team is Better and Worse Off Because You’re On It

Atul Gawande, one of my favorite authors, is about to gain a wider audience through this new book that will do very well.

His New Yorker essay, Cowboys and Pit Crews, got me thinking about how we live our lives on a never ending series of teams whether grade school classrooms, athletic teams, art and music based teams, community groups, home owners associations, church councils, families, school faculties, work teams, book clubs, special interest groups, political campaigns, boards of directors, etc.

You would never guess that if your only frame of reference was elementary, secondary, and higher education classrooms in the United States. Students almost always work on things individually and faculty almost always assess students individually. Sure, sometimes students work in small groups, but they’re not taught to be thoughtful observers of small group dynamics. It’s rare that they’re ever asked why some small groups work well and others don’t. Too often, teachers wrongly assume students already know how to be good teammates. As a result, students tend to be clueless about group dynamics.

And since teamwork doesn’t factor into student evaluations, they’re even less self aware of their team-based strengths and weaknesses. They’re hardly ever asked the most basic group process related questions such as, “What do you do well as a team member? What’s most challenging for you when working closely with others? Where could you improve?”

Every person, you included, has specific skills, knowledge, and personal attributes that benefit and hamper all of the teams they are on at any one time. Which of your skills, knowledge, and personal attributes do your team’s often use to positive advantage? And how does your presence on teams sometimes limit their effectiveness? What could you do better as a teammate?

Aren’t sure how to answer those questions? Welcome to the “Almost Everybody” Club. It’s not your fault. Individualism is so pervasive in American life, schools think about students as cowboys  and cowgirls despite the fact they’ll live their lives on pit crew after pit crew.

 

Teaching Teamwork

In May, 2011, Atul Gawande gave an insightful commencement address to Harvard’s Medical School graduates.

He reminded the graduates that the practice of medicine had changed markedly, and that increasingly, the best docs are members of teams.

Gawande pointed out that, “The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become.”

I’m having my graduate-level teacher certification students read the address. On the copy I’m providing them, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “medicine” and written in “teachers” and “education”.

Here’s Gawande’s primary point:

The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it means to “protocol” the MRI.

Today, isn’t it a workplace truism for nearly everyone that “. . . you can’t hold all the information in your head. . . and you can’t master all the skills”?

Gawande adds:

The public’s experience is that we have amazing clinicians and technologies but little consistent sense that they come together to provide an actual system of care, from start to finish, for people. We train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews people need.

On my students’ copies, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “people” and substituted “teachers” and “students”.

Gawande acknowledges that medical education fails to teach docs to function like pit crews for patients. The same is true for teacher education.

Too often nursing, medical school, and teacher education faculty wrongly assume that novice nurses, docs, and teachers will naturally, through osmosis, form knowledgeable, skilled, interdependent work teams. Absent intentional team-building curricula, in which case studies would be an integral component, professional apprentices depend upon the modeling of their veteran colleagues, often out-of-step ones pining for old school independence and autonomy.

When in comes to intentionally teaching teamwork, what can and should professional preparation programs do to shift the balance from cowboys to pitcrews? More generally, what can employers do to teach teamwork?

They shouldn’t assume it’s something someone is either born with or not. Effective teamwork can be taught through case studies that illuminate what the best teams do and what commonly trips up most others. And by proactively providing pre-professional students positive examples of excellent teams during their fieldwork.