Of all the motivational platitudes that are verbally tossed around in business, “there is no ‘I’ in T-E-A-M” is arguably the most tired, and the phrase losing its ground the fastest. In the growing trend of business models designed around office collaboration tools, streamlined process management and the leveling of corporate hierarchies, progressive companies are quickly realizing a simple fact: individual skill and input may not trump the value of brainstorming, but it is essential to collaboration and, in particular, leadership.

In other words, you can’t get honey from a hive of queen bees, but a hive without a queen is just a loud, sticky mess.

The Value of One

If it’s chancy to leave individuals completely to their own devices within a group, it’s downright dangerous to ignore that different people work differently, and often more effectively, when given the space, tools, and empowerment to do so. When’s the last time you heard one of your team members say, “Gee, I love being micromanaged!” or “Wow, it’s awesome to have zero control over my own creativity.”

We’re guessing: never.

So what’s the deal? If employees are overwhelmingly motivated by recognition of their singular value, why do some businesses prize total harmony within project teams over individual input? Part of the problem lies in how an organization structures its teams. While we’re moving towards a culture that exchanges “managers” for “leaders,” the assumption remains that certain players within a team are consistently more important, and so are their ideas. Ron Ashkenas of the Harvard Business Review notes that managers “worry about being disconnected.” He writes that, as leaders expand the umbrella of their influence, they grow uncertain that they’re still connected to the actual work being done by their organization. This can lead to micromanagement and the loss of truly collaborative teamwork; when individuals feel undervalued and unheard, they’re less likely to contribute to or remain invested in the end-goal that ironically, their unique expertise or perspective was chosen to reach.

It makes sense; less ownership means less motivation to succeed, and a lack of motivation will inevitably lead to failure. There’s a phrase we could add here about “one bad apple,” but you get the point.

There’s an ‘I’ in Agile, Too.

Sure, loosening the reins can be risky, like trusting your brother-in-law to fix your transmission because “he’s good with cars.” But think about it: businesses don’t become successful without acknowledging — and facing — a variety of risks and potential failures. Similarly, teams operating with just one lonely idea or perspective can’t evolve quickly or broadly enough to tackle competitors or solve problems, whether they’re local or global. Agile business means adaptable business, and companies that do it well know that agility comes from within. In Mark de Rond’s book, There is an I in Team, he states, “…team leadership is as much about mitigating [risks] as it is about exploiting their potential.” And he’s right; the art of taking risks that uncover beneficial ideas and fresh avenues is directly tied to a leader’s ability and willingness to recognize the importance of disruption, and to understand that there is always more than one path to the top of the mountain. Teams are an exercise in confluence, not uniformity, and should remain as dexterous as the business they support.

Team Cartography: Giving Your Group a Structure for Success

Clearly, it’s necessary to vet team members based on what each member can bring to the table. It’s equally as imperative to structure a team around how the various participants’ strengths, attitudes and needs complement each other — while keeping positional authority in mind, though without letting it supersede productivity. As CMSWire’s Richard Harbridge points out, “The truth is that, while the raw talent and skills of players is important, the team structure, patterns and practices are just as important.”

A great way to monitor overall progress is to visually graph your team and strategy, the same way you might map out an idea, connecting skills and knowledge with potential outcomes, tasks, and even roadblocks. As the team works towards its collective goal, unexpected challenges and epiphanies will emerge, which team leaders can also map in an effort to enrich collaboration and encourage critical thinking.

The map itself will likely change shape a number of times, but will provide a measure against which the team can gauge its momentum visually, look for patterns, or revisit breakthroughs and failures. Most importantly, this team blueprint will transparently show how each member and their input is contributing to the project as a whole, and how they fit into the architecture of the group. It’ll become apparent pretty quickly if someone’s getting lost in the fray, or perhaps more useful, if one person is inadvertently (or purposely) hijacking the entire project.

Moral of the story: without collaboration through teamwork, growth is sluggish at best, innovation remains stagnant, and agility keeps its distance. And, without ‘I’, there is no team.