Expertise vs. Teamwork

September 22, 2010 by
Filed under: People, Project management, Teamwork 

We were working through a project management workshop that I have blogged about in the past, where we have a fun blend of theory and practice centred around a brief construction project. With more than enough resources to go around, we decided to try to design an experiment for the last round that might help answer the question of which is more valuable: expertise or teamwork?

The group was well ahead of expectations in the session, completing the requirements comfortably in the second of three rounds, even though perhaps a third of the participants were not actively involved. Those that hadn’t yet had a chance to play were interested in getting their hands dirty. The room was filled with graduate students, well versed in the design of experiments and with a strong curiosity.

Traditionally, as the teams work through the construction exercise from one round to the next, there are a number of factors that affect performance. Certainly in the first round, as most people have never worked with the materials we use, there is a learning curve for snapping things into place and for interpreting the somewhat vague instructions. As the day progresses, we introduce tools that support stronger teamwork, and by the end of the day the teams are thoroughly coordinated: at using the materials, and at working effectively together.

Clearly, expertise and teamwork both have a role in the massive improvements the teams see throughout the day. Which, though, is the stronger force? We tried to find out.

While leaving the primary goal of the simulation intact (to build two of these devices as quickly as possible), we identified a separate team that had no prior experience with the materials (in the workshop or otherwise). They participated alongside the primary team to coordinate and strategize how to best work together to build the device, gaining all the value they could from the group’s lack of coordination in the first two rounds (but not allowed to familiarize themselves with the materials).

Our assumption was that this group would still have the same learning curve to deal with as all groups do the first time through (actually, some groups often have the advantage of builders that have played with these materials outside of the workshop). If this new group took just as long to build their component, then expertise was the dominant driver. If, however, this group managed to build the component more quickly, then there was an argument for teamwork and coordination as being dominant.

Historically, with first rounds, some teams might get this component done in 8-9 minutes, and there are times when they can’t complete this component in 12 minutes. We had a baseline to work from, however imprecise. This was a quickly formulated experiment, under less than rigorous conditions.

In this session, the group held back from starting for about 5 minutes (to avoid interfering with the main group), and completed their task in the 7 minutes that remained. The result was that they came in as one of the fastest groups that had no prior experience with the building materials.

For me, that indicated that neither expertise or teamwork could be declared the champion in this experiment, which lines up with what I see on real projects. It’s the effective combination of the two that is critical for project success. While projects might be completed with only one or the other, the results are likely to be weaker than when the two are carefully blended together.

In discussions afterwards, I volunteered perhaps a 50/50 split of the importance of expertise and teamwork. There was interesting discussion as people weighed in about the balance of these two factors on projects, and the general consensus was that the teamwork and coordination was the more important of the two, even for a project such as this where manual dexterity and expertise play a big role.

At some point in the future, perhaps with a similarly sized group, it would be interesting to repeat the experiment with a different twist: we could provide a group of people with general expertise in using the materials in the first few rounds but keep them isolated from the knowledge of the particular device we are building in the workshop.

What do you think: on your projects, which is a more critical factor – teamwork or expertise? – JB

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