When I was a kid, I sat glued to the television watching behind the scenes shows on the workings of industrial plants. I couldn’t get enough of watching a series of machines work in tandem to convert raw materials into marvelous things like crayons, cotton swabs, and especially soda pop. Each machine had its specialty: squirting just the right amount to fill the pop bottle, placing a metal disc on top, crimping the disk to make a lid, printing the ink on the bottles—it still gets me excited just thinking about how screws, pulleys, levers, and gears can be made to do such interesting things. (Geek moment.)
By the time I graduated from high school, there were few local jobs left in the traditional manufacturing economy. Many of the factories had left town and in their places were office towers, filled with knowledge workers. It was serendipity (and a bad physics grade) that led me away from science to the study of psychology. But from the very first course in Industrial Psychology, I had a new fascination with the modern business machine—the team.
Simple machines (pulleys and levers, etc.) change the direction or magnitude of a force, creating a mechanical advantage over work done without the machine (thanks Wikipedia). That’s what great teams do too. Combining different people and processing information in myriad ways transforms ideas and information into products and services the way gears and pulleys transform water and corn syrup into soda pop. Here are three of the most exciting transformations team machines create.
- Mixing, Blending and Homogenization. Machines take corn syrup, water, carbon dioxide, and artificial coloring and mix them into a delicious, uniform drink. That drink is more pleasurable (and more valuable) together than as a collection of ingredients on their own. Effective teams mix, blend, and homogenize ingredients (ideas, information, and processes) into a single output where the original sources are no longer identifiable. Teams have an advantage over individuals in this blending of diverse talents and ideas.
- Filtration. Another common machine in a factory setting is a filter. Filters are important in manufacturing because they weed out ingredients that you don’t want in the end product. Teams play an important role in filtering ideas to make sure only the highest quality ideas are allowed to proceed through the manufacturing process. Teams have an advantage over individuals because different people will be able to identify and remove different unwanted or ineffective ideas.
- Acceleration. When one gear connects with another smaller gear, it can make the second gear spin even faster. The same is true of great teams. Each person is a cog in the machine. One person starts the idea moving and the added value of the next person gets it moving faster and faster. When the team really gets going, each idea spawns many more and the rate of change and innovation really gets going.
The team is an amazing machine, able to blend disparate ingredients into valuable outputs, to filter the best ideas from the rest, and to accelerate the pace of innovation. Teams might not have the appeal of a shiny chrome machine, but to me they are just as amazing.
Who wants to contribute to my geeked out list? What are some of the other amazing functions of a team machine?