Carlos Valdes-Dapena, known for challenging the conventional wisdom of team building, is a speaker, best-selling author and corporate leader with 30 years of experience in collaboration innovation at organizations, including Mars, Inc. and IBM. He is the founder and managing principal of Corporate Collaboration Resources.
PMI: How do you define teamwork?
Valdes-Dapena: It depends. Academic definitions usually define it as something like a small group of people who are interdependent, with shared goals. For me, the fundamental point about teams is how much collaboration is required for a project, and how much can be done by individuals. Doing things individually is actually a more efficient way to get work done because teamwork tends to be messy and prone to conflict.
PMI: Based on your extensive experience in business, on average, what mark out of 10 would you give most companies when it comes to teamwork?
Valdes-Dapena: Four, on average. We tend to assume that teamwork is innate. You see cave paintings of people hunting together, collaborating on something and getting a good outcome from it, such as food or animal hide. We think that teamwork is natural, but it’s a more complex neurological phenomenon. There are different ways to do it. There are different mistakes to be made, and different skills required.
PMI: What are common mistakes when it comes to teamwork?
Valdes-Dapena: The first mistake is using the words “team” and “teamwork” very loosely and not being clear about what you need. Any competent manager assigning a task to an individual will explain what needs to be done, and when, and who needs to be involved. What does success look like? We don’t tend to do that with teamwork.
PMI: How can companies improve their teamwork, particularly for projects?
Valdes-Dapena: Create clarity about the work that needs to be done collaboratively. Then you need to get people talking about how they’ll do their roles in a project. For example, “I’ll do analytics, but I’m not so good presentations, can you do them?” My framework for enabling those conversations includes clarifying your strategic context—why a team has been created—and “relationship contracting,” which includes figuring out people’s personalities and how they will impact the work on the project.
PMI: What about meetings?
Valdes-Dapena: It’s important to agree on ways of working for a project. I once worked with a finance team of very senior executives who met every month. Then they realized that they only needed to meet every two months or maybe even twice a year.
The only things they did as a team were strategy and talent reviews. Before I worked with them, they had daylong meetings every month, even though they were very busy people.
They realized that they could get a lot of important financial information from across the business by email and that the only thing they needed to meet about was talent development—how they are bringing people up through their leadership pipeline and strategy. It was liberating for the executives. People are driven crazy by meetings. There’s so much waste.
PMI: Has teamwork improved during your career? Has technology helped to improve it?
Valdes-Dapena: Collaboration platforms such as Slack, Blue Jeans (video conferencing), Skype and Trello don’t make a lick of difference in how well people collaborate. In fact, they can slow it down because people have too much information to process. You can have 20 Slack channels going. What do you pay attention to? The fundamentals of collaboration must come first. Technology can enable really good work together, but only if you understand what’s worth working on together and who needs to be working on what.
PMI: What has been the most interesting project you’ve worked on, either as a team member or as an adviser?
Valdes-Dapena: I’ve worked on so many that it’s hard to choose. When I was an employee at Mars, it acquired the Wrigley Company and wanted to integrate it into its business. I was part of the team charged with that integration. My job was change management. It was massively complex. Both businesses had iconic brands so there was a lot at stake, and it had to happen all over the world. Every system, including sales, human resources, marketing and R&D, had to be integrated. And while doing that, we also had to reorganize the company. Also, the two businesses operated very differently. Wrigley had a very centralized system of control across its businesses worldwide. By contrast, Mars had a very decentralized business and was a more relationship-based business, rather than a process-based one.
PMI: There has been a huge increase in remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Could this have a long-term impact on teamwork?
Valdes-Dapena: We still don’t know. Some of the bigger tech companies have said that an entirely remote workforce is working fine for them and they will stick with it. Software development companies are all project work. Other companies say this cannot last, primarily because if its employees aren’t in the room together at some point then it won’t have the richness of working relationships, and the ability to execute plans will fall off.
Interacting remotely can miss important stuff. You can miss subtle communication cues and it certainly isn’t as rewarding. There is a risk that the absence of genuine human interaction could undermine outcomes.