Teamthink Works

Teamthink rewards individual contributions by positively examining every idea that is presented.

Plan your work for today and every day, then work your plan.
— Margaret Thatcher

Some of man’s best ideas are developed through discussion. A brainstorming session allows a group of people to draw from a broader scope of experiences and can kick-start dialogue to lead to a more in-depth evaluation of potential next steps or solutions.

I’ve mistakenly identified this organized effort in the past as “groupthink.” While that term is defined by the process of working as a group to reach a consensus on a solution, it implies negative effects brought to the group by faulty dynamics. I believe that most group problem-solving exercises are positive and worthwhile.

The groupthink experience stifles individual creativity because personal responsibility is outweighed by that of the group as a whole. Further, individuals may tend to conform to ideas of the majority, particularly those of superior rank within a company or organization to avoid being looked down upon for going against those people, or worse yet, having the entire group’s responsibility lie on the success (or lack of success) of the idea. Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” What makes sense in boxing may also make sense, figuratively or not, in a group setting when someone’s idea is criticized.

In contrast, “teamthink” takes advantage of the same relationships that exist in groupthink, but rewards individual contributions by positively examining every idea that is presented, considering all options equally in order to decide what works best for the group as a whole. This approach puts more weight on the significance of the ideas of every person in the group, and therefore boosts the confidence of those who otherwise may be reluctant to add their two cents.

I’ve visited a number of shops (American Micro Products Inc. in Batavia, Ohio, comes to mind) that have regularly scheduled team meetings that can be considered teamthink by their nature. These meetings may be daily or weekly and may involve a portion of the shop that works in specific areas or perhaps could include the entire shopfloor crew. During these meetings, each person reports on current job status, upcoming projects and challenges currently being faced. Everyone is then encouraged to contribute to finding ways to improve the production process.

This concept is not unique to shops. Software developer CNC Software Inc. (Mastercam) uses the similar “Scrum” philosophy, which involves breaking down projects into smaller, manageable tasks. Small, agile teams work together in two-week “sprints” to complete specific tasks on a project. Each group meets daily in a common area to discuss the previous day’s accomplishments and the coming day’s goals. The company believes that this strategy provides a more detailed outlook, quicker reaction to potential problems, and better forecasting for project completion.

Production Machining’s parent company, Gardner Business Media, has 10 separate magazine brands, each with its own editorial staff. Each of these individual teams meets regularly to stay on top of the brand’s everyday production requirements. As part of the company’s Metalworking Group, PM’s editors also attend monthly meetings with the editorial staffs of the company’s other metalworking brands. All of these meetings work similarly to those teamthink sessions described here. We learn from each other in streamlining our processes and troubleshooting issues that arise.

Recently, the company brought together the editorial staffs of all 10 of our magazine brands. Because many of these editors reside out of town (and even out of the country), this editorial summit was a much bigger undertaking; it is currently set up as an annual event. It provides a large-scale brainstorming session (carried over two days) to discuss the things we do well as individual brands, along with duties or processes that could be improved.

Our editorial summit was structured with sessions led by editors who are having particular success in certain challenging parts of their jobs. While the information presented in these sessions was helpful for many, the greatest benefit from the conference seemed to come from question/answer sessions and other discussions, formal and informal, that prompted new ideas. There may be nothing quite as effective as bringing people together who have a common goal and letting them hash out potential solutions with open minds. It’s the surest way to find the best answers.