Quick and Dirty Teamwork

There has been a dearth of posts to this site. Part of the reason for this is that I got busy playing Overwatch by Blizzard. The underlying mechanics of the game are team based and players must work together to achieve success. Failures in the game are often due to players not working together effectively. These sorts of failures can have lessons for teams working on projects in a professional capacity; today we’ll look at a couple of team failure modes and consider ways they can be rectified.

Team work, being a human endeavor, can fail in as many different and colorful ways as there are people. The team’s formed and their failures in Overwatch are particularly interesting to me for a few reasons:

  • The impersonal nature of teams
  • The short duration of teams

Lacking the human touch

That text and voice communication over the internet makes it easier for people to dehumanize each other is not a new. Coordination among individuals that are, ostensibly, working towards a common goal though can suffer when members of the team are not able to directly interact. The following can happen with teams formed from individuals at arm’s length:

  • Assumption of omniscience: This is frequently unintentional, individuals assume that others just know of decisions that have been made or can easily intuit those decisions. Assumption of knowledge doesn’t work well in online games and it really does not work well in professional settings. It can make successful long term or even short term planning impossible due to involved parties not knowing their needs and goals.
  • Overestimation of contribution: It is possible to (vastly) overestimate a single individual’s contributions in environments where information is not fully shared between the team. In other words, from the perspective of an individual lacking in shared information, it can seem as if his or her efforts were solely responsible for the success of the team.
  • Underestimation of the contribution of outside influence (AKA luck): Ever mistakenly hit a key while typing? Overwatch punishes that mistake heavily (within the context of the game–we’ll talk more about that later). Again, due to lack of information, it easily to mistake a team for being massively successful when, in fact, they just had poorly coordinated opponents.

Overwatch, being an multiplayer online game has structural blockages to resolving some of the above problems. Professionally though, we can resolve these sorts of issues. For teams that are collocated in a physical location, getting lunch together on regular basis and talking about anything other than work can help encourage individuals collaborate. Unfortunately, solutions are not as straightforward for teams that are not collocated. For organizations that understand the costs of the above failures there are options to encourage communication. Flying individuals to be in the same location for even a few days can help intrateam communication.

No time

Something that makes consulting hard is the short team duration. Short duration teams have less opportunity to work together, socialize, and develop communication habits that avoid the problems laid out in the prior section. Overwatch is a comically extreme example of this. Teams are formed for 10-20 minutes and then immediately disbanded.

It seems that short duration teams, particularly so ones that once disbanded sends their members back into anonymity, enables a lack of empathy and little desire to work together.

Time is too short to understand each other’s motivations, perhaps too short for argument, and definitely too short for resolution. The problem here is that sometimes arriving at a good course of action can mean disagreements and arguments about direction. If teams do not have enough time to resolve their disagreements then arguments remain just that, arguments. To makes thing worse, short duration teams leave little time for the kinds of social interactions that avoid all the previous issues.

Unfortunately mitigating short duration is tough since one of the best the mitigations is to spend more time together. On short projects, it may not be possible for teams to spend enough time together to resolve disagreements about approach or methodology.

On a more positive note

All that said, there are some serious positive take-aways from online video games despite their problems and the vitriol typically associated with their players.

Shared goals and punishments help keep teams focused. Teams in online games can be successfully formed for short periods of time from people that have never met before and they can operate well. Part of what enables successful team work is a very well understood common goal. Another significant part of what enables successful team work is rewards that are based on the team’s combined performance. Overwatch does both things.

I have seen projects fail and end or, even worse, go nowhere because the goal of the project wasn’t clear. Even a highly functional team that works well together may have their progress frustrated when it isn’t clear what that progress is supposed to be working towards. More insidiously, poorly designed incentives can have individuals within a team working against the greater good of team. Incentives that prize individual contribution above all else can have teams fighting against each other rather than towards the common goal.

Defining clear team goals and rewards is a topic for another post and one that I have touched on tangentially before. I’ve talked both about quality as a goal and develop agile project approaches. It’s worth noting that while rewards and goals can help, creating time and shared space for teams to interact can help team performance immeasurably.

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