Why Focus on the Team Rather Than the Individual?

Why focus on the team rather than the individual?This post, the second in a series on scaling Agile, picks up on the discussion started in the first post where I compared different levels of scale in the business world with corresponding levels of scale in our broader society.

Over the next few posts, I will discuss the base unit of scaling — the team — and compare it to the base unit of society — the family. I hope to demonstrate that knowledge-worker teams are successful when they are able to emulate the natural environment of healthy families, the place where collaboration began.

Today’s post will focus on why we choose the team as our base unit of analysis rather than the individual.

As Aristotle said,

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice (an animal) or more than human (a god)”

For most of human history, personal identity was secondary to social identity. People thought of themselves as members of a family or tribe first, and as an individual second. The emphasis on the individual over the social is in large part a modern phenomenon. This is partly a product of post-enlightenment political philosophy (individual rights) and partly due to the specialization of labor. Focusing on individual contributions while ignoring the social context obscures our ability to understand how value is generated in the workplace. This is especially true when it comes to knowledge work.

The Ford assembly line in 1928Knowledge work such as design and innovation depends on the synthesis of diverse perspectives (See Steven Johnson’s video, Where good ideas come from, for a great discussion on this key point). Or, put more succinctly, collaboration. The unique qualities of the participants, their personalities, their personal histories, and how they engage together determines the quality of the work outcome. In other words, the same project, if staffed by different people, will yield different results. Compare this with an assembly-line operation where switching out individual workers does not change the work outcome. On the proverbial assembly line (decidedly not the case in lean organizations, such as Toyota), all we want from the worker is their labor. Labor, abstracted from the individual, is treated as a fungible commodity. The laborer’s unique human characteristics are — best case — non-added value. This traditional management approach is anathema to knowledge work.

In contrast, the Agile management approach invites knowledge workers to bring their full selves to the workplace. Individual ideas and efforts are integrated into a collective work product. This is why, in Agile environments the unit of the production is the team, not the individual.

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