The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 8, 2010


Carlisle Comments

The sum is no longer greater than the sum of the parts

It used to be that we workers would all go to the same place to work every day. Big and small teams of people, in cubicles side-by-side, were all working on the same project, working towards the same goal. When we had questions or problems, we’d walk into the cubicle next to our own. We’d discuss the problem, look at it from different angles, perhaps getting others involved to come up with the best solution, taking insights from all participants. Therefore, the sum, the total, was greater than the sum of the individual parts.

But the work model has changed. We tele-commute, we come to the workplace less often, if at all. Now the team is divided not only across state lines, but across regional lines, country borders and yet further, with a small team in Europe, India or perhaps China. Often, the team is spread across time zones, so far apart it is difficult to ever communicate at the same time. But don’t worry, there’s the Internet, email, voice mail, IMing and teleconferencing. All those tools will keep us “together” and informed. At least, that’s the plan.

But I ask you: Is the sum of the parts any longer larger than the sum of the individuals? Yes, it’s very cool to tell your kids you were conversing with a woman in China and a man in France, but really, is it a better model? Do we pick up that phone nearly enough to discuss thorny problems with our teammates across the globe? Do we often “bother” our mates across “the ponds” to find the best solutions?

My gut tells me that we don’t pick up the phone. We have not been given the time to make personal connections with far-away teammates, so we don’t let down our guard. We may not want them to know we don’t have an answer. The communication gap is larger than we care to acknowledge. The camaraderie that comes from hammering out solutions together and sharing a cup of coffee hasn’t translated across the global structure. The bonds that make a team effective are hard to build with faceless folks at the other end of phone lines and emails.

When I was working in high tech, I was part of a large team. We designed three generations of high-end servers. That team was strong – we knew one another and used the strengths of each for the best product.

Now, some firms in corporate America define their individuals by job title. As a new project starts up, the boss goes to the “job title” list and pulls names off, each one seemingly interchangeable with the next.

It’s not to say we are against the new model. We have been trying it diligently. Initially, we thought it was interesting, talking to people in foreign nations, but we’ve been working on it for a while now and a few things are becoming clear. The dynamics of a close-knit team banging out solutions to a complicated design are hard to replicate with the physical barriers of time zones, language and perhaps, design style.

When the project is complete and the product is ready, that tremendous feeling of being a part of a victorious group is dampened, when you stand among a few. You miss the feeling of satisfaction that comes when your whole team is around you. We have lost something in this new corporate model. The sum is no longer larger than the sum of the individual parts. ∆

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