Putting the 'i' in 'team'
by Stanley Bing, FORTUNE Magazine

(FORTUNE Magazine) - What do these human groupings have in common? First, the sports club. A squad of unassociated talent banding together to do something senseless to the naked eye for people who will pay them to do it. They play well together, but only if they have some demented jerk screaming from the sidelines when they screw up and patting them on the bottom when they do well.

Next, the prison chain gang. A collection of unrelated individuals brought together by one commonality: They did something wrong, they got caught, and they couldn't afford a successful and/or disreputable lawyer. Now they work every day under painful conditions supervised by a mean guy with a belly and a shotgun.

Then, the business squad. A cadre of disparate souls united by shared activity pointed at a specific goal - an acquisition, a quarterly report, a PowerPoint presentation, a management retreat. Whatever the objective, they are as chained to one another as the guys with shackles around their ankles. Without the anxious, grouchy, focused nut job sitting in the corner office yelling exhortations and imprecations into the telephone, they would be nowhere too.

What these entities share is that each may be recognized as that mystical, elusive thing: a team. But what makes them so? Is it that they must inhabit the same space while they do their work? No, that's not it, as anybody who's ever coached Little League or presided over a board of directors will tell you.

Is it the work itself that binds them together? Not really, although we're closer. A group will work in coordination for a time as long as the assignment and deadline are clear. But the natural drift is in the direction of what every parent will recognize as parallel play - a bunch of unique entities, all busy, comfortable around each other, but intersecting only when one has the clay the other one needs to finish his corner of the castle.

We're left with one ingredient. That's right - the looming dude with the gut and the gun, the yelling miscreant, the visionary, the ill-tempered authority figure, the boss. He or she is the noble rot that turns the loose, pulpy lees into a coherent vintage.

Behind every team, there is a leader. And the stronger that individual, the better the team. Why? Because the monkey in the middle performs a variety of essential functions. He or she:

  • Points each member of the troop toward the task at hand, not at each other. A weak center makes for squabbling, rivalry, and organizational dementia. Look at Congress. 'Nuff said?
  • Creates a semi-infantile relationship between each individual and the group; that is, creates a need for love, recognition, and praise that can be provided only by the leader.
  • Establishes a presence that people can fear, resent, strive for, die for, rage against, and love - together.
  • Takes the heat when everything goes wrong.
  • Authorizes free food.

There's a lot of tripe written about the glories of the Team, but the central irony is almost always missed, and that is this: There is an "I" in "team," and it's a four-letter word beginning with "b."

Last week we got to the point around here where no more time could be wasted on a presentation whose purpose is both confidential and unimportant. About 3 P.M., I got a call from Luther. "Bob is nervous about the status of the project," said Luther. That was enough for me. I called Ned. "Bob is nervous about the status of the project," I told Ned.

"Who's in charge of it?" said Ned.

"I thought you were," I said.

"No," said Ned. "I thought you were."

Okay, I thought. I'm not, not really. But Bob is nervous, which is one step away from jumpy, which is a stone's throw from mad.

I made a few phone calls. Within 90 minutes, we had set up a meeting. At that meeting, we organized several more. There have been four since last Wednesday. As we progressed, each department better understood its role, the associated responsibilities and deadlines, and what it could fob off on somebody else. Calm descended, and a kind of quiet confidence. Whatever happened, we were together in this thing.

Yesterday, we presented our work to Bob. He stopped being nervous. Afterward I saw Ned in the hall. "Good stuff," I said.

"Thanks for taking control of the situation," he said.

"Really?" I said, putting my arm around his shoulder. "I thought you did."

Stanley Bing's new book, 100 Bullshit Jobs ... And How to Get Them (Collins), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. Top of page