On teamwork

My contributions since I left the Graduate Faculties of Economics at Colombia ever so long ago have been strongly marked by team projects — whether this meant working with a public or private sector client as a consultant or adviser, or on wide open collaborative projects of which you can find a number of examples if you spend some time in  these pages.

All of which is by way of saying that not only do I really like team projects, but that an environmental activist I really have no choice. Were I an academic, laboratory scientist or  writer, I could make my contribution working on my own. But when one choses to try to influence policy and practice, well that means you have to get out of the tower and on to the street.

Good training for teamwork can come either from growing up in a large family, practicing chamber music or amateur sports. If it’s soccer football or crew, to take two good examples, what you learn from a young age to  is to listen to the coach, do your best and to never for one minute ever confuse the performance of the team with your own ego. Ego yes of course, but silent ego.  You keep it to yourself.

Same thing when it’s time for a team project of the sort many of us do with people who have other skills, other priorities and other attitudes — but all this has to disappear as you put your energies and brains together to do your best as a team.  Each player has their special role to play.

How much Britton do you need?

It happens that I am quite often asked this question, implicitly of course, but nonetheless as you are gearing up on a project or problem, it is a question that is legitimate to ask.

And the answer, if my experience is a guide, is not all that much.  Some days very early if possible in the planning cycle, and even more important in the wide-open questioning phase that really should come first.  At this point personal presence is probably pretty important (failing that good videoconferencing connections and a regular schedule of sessions religiously adhered to, can do the job quite nicely).

Then once the program or project is launched, it is useful to have a routine for periodic review along with open-ended feedback from this end as I am able to observe and comment on progress, problems, etc.   The commenting process must of course be discreet and private.

What happens if the project is possibly a bad one, or seriously flawed?

In the world in which I work this happens all the time. And more often than not the people, the actors who are behind this idea are for one reason or other seriously (self-) blinded to these risks and shortcomings. In such cases, their usual routine is to look around for obliging consultants who are going to help them, willy-nilly, to move ahead with their idea.  Fair enough, that’s life, but that is where I try to help out not as a consultant but as an advisor.  My job in this case is to get together with the client and try to poke as many holes as I can in their idea. Not necessarily at first, since new ideas are always fragile and if proposed in good faith should at least benefit from a careful look.

Let me close out this introductory section with a short story about a recent and really very exciting project in which I had a small role as an advisor. A world level project of great ambition and in many ways an idea for its time, proposed by a highly competent group with impeccable performance standards and all the resources needed to get the underlying job done to a world level standard.

But their project was seriously flawed and in my — and in this case i really can say “expert” — view the whole thing was going to fall apart for no less than three critical reasons. Now three is a very big number when we are dealing with the critical underpinning for a very big and highly visible public  venture.

My contribution: to tell them in private what I think, with care to phrasing my cautionary notes not as aggressions but as my best supporting counsel.  The client’s team, who had been assigned by their hierarchy the job to make the project work!  choose to move ahead on schedule with the original idea without modifications or additional internal questioning despite my cautions, which I think it going to  cost them a bundle. But again, that’s life.

My most critical failure in this case was my inability to convince them to prepare a Plan B back-up position, replete with a series of early warning signals to help them position themselves and the basic project, i.e., the job they really wanted to get done, so that they could modulate and change as the feedback came in. There is no good reason why they cannot create a series of feedback links that will allow them to shift from Plan A to Plan B, and come up a winner.

Happy ending? Well it’s my bet that as the results come in and the truth rears its ugly head that they will indeed see this and then start to make the necessary adjustments and damage limitation. They are smart people and they have the means to do it right (and wrong too but that’s what we wanted to avoid). The only pity being that we could and should have charted all this from the beginning.

So hope with me for this, will you? Once they set it right it’s going to be a first class program. A real contribution. Less spectacular, less edgy than what they would have liked to achieve in their initial enthusiasm for a huge win, but a real contribution and a success. Who can argue with that.?

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