A move away from self-interest: putting the "T" back in teamwork

By Apptio  |  April 11, 2016

In all the years I have been a parent, I've been continuously surprised by the presumed importance of teamwork when raising kids. It’s a nice sentiment that expectant parents optimistically embrace at some point between starting birthing classes and fitting the car seat. But for those of us who are actually raising these little crumb crunchers, it’s fair to say that we know the score: a child’s self-interest will eat teamwork for breakfast. It’s not that kids are conniving or manipulative (ok, not just that), it’s that my goals for the family only get any traction when my kids know what’s in it for them.

Finding a correlation between teamwork in family life relationships and teamwork at work is clearly imprecise. But the universality of human motivations (individual first; teamwork second) makes ‘team dynamics’ a minefield — in either realm. All of us pay earnest lip-service to the notion of ‘teamwork’ in interview loops (‘and, you know, sometimes I just care too much…’), but put five people on a project (with individual agendas) and watch the larger goal go nowhere. Why does that happen? The answer usually boils down to either, a.) not defining the benefits of working beyond your own personal silo and, b.) not seeing the impact your work has on others.

Teamwork in the office

Tell a finance analyst they are going to be empowered to help right-size server spend and you will have two sequential reactions: suspicion and intrigue. If you have any interest in leveraging the former, you had better pacify the latter. This isn’t a knock against Finance. Finance is supposed to be conservative and risk-averse; that’s what we want them to be. But to get out of their existing frame of mind, the team goals of TBM have to be positioned as beneficial and measurable net additions to a Finance team's remit. In my work with clients, I have found most Finance people (be they IT or Corporate) are open to hearing about anything that hastens a transition away from the tactical (i.e. month-end close) to strategic (i.e. analyzing the behavior that is driving spend). But there is a trust-but-verify component to it: show me how all my tactical work is still going to be taken care of and then show me the strategic areas I can work in.

The move away from self-interest

The most effective push away from self-interest occurs when we see the impact of our work. An application portfolio owner is told the TCO of the apps she owns. What can she do with that information? In isolation, not so much. But what if I can show her the opportunity cost of retired apps that are still being hosted on expensive legacy mainframe servers? If we turn off those apps and repurpose those servers, what are we freeing up? Can we consolidate the array of servers or eliminate them all together? Straight away, we can move the conversation away from just cost to a much more TBM-aligned conversation about the quality and value of that app's TCO. Those are conversations that resonate through the supply chain of IT, through procurement, and up through the business as a whole. Talk about impactful.

Self-interest is inherently a function of not seeing the benefits of collaboration — no-one wants their work to have zero impact on others. When that impact is articulated and a future state is imagined, we are prepared to work for the team over the individual. This applies to an apps owner as much as it applies to my teenage son when I’m trying to cajole him into doing the laundry.

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