Team Development or Growing Wheat in Siberia


This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Organizational Psychology for Managers

Once upon a time, the late and unlamented Soviet Union decided to grow wheat in Siberia. Their logic was simple: by growing wheat in the inhospitable conditions of Siberia, the wheat would become stronger. The wheat, however, was indifferent to Soviet philosophy. Despite speeches, threats, and promises from the government, the wheat stubbornly refused to grow.

In 1990s, a group of Nobel Prize winning economists developed some very interesting theories about how the financial markets should work. Their theories were brilliant and attracted billions in investment dollars into the hedge fund they created. Long-term Capital Management almost took down the entire US economy when it collapsed in the summer of 1998.

In both cases, a belief about how the world should work was trumped by the way the world does work.

To bring this a little closer to home, I worked with one high technology company that decided to create a set of coding standards for its software development team. While not an unusual occurrence in software companies, in this case, the manager in charge wrote up a fifty (that’s right, 50) page standards document. Naturally, everyone was overjoyed and memorized everything; at least, that’s what the manager thought. In fact, no one read more than a page or two and most of the engineers ignored even that.

Another company was trying to manage information: design decisions, notes from discussions, and so forth. They had the very good idea that they could manage all their accumulated wisdom as a Wiki. Unfortunately, the Wiki swiftly ballooned into an unmanageable morass of data in which no one could actually find anything useful. The problem wasn’t so much getting people to remember to update the Wiki; it was organizing the information in a manner useful to everyone who needed to use it, and in convincing people to take the time to keep it organized. Indeed, even agreeing on how it should be organized generated controversy and bad feeling.

In both of these cases, beliefs about how people should do their work were trumped by the way people actually do work. Like Soviet wheat, it can be remarkably difficult to motivate or threaten people into doing something that they really do not want to do. Unlike wheat, people can be forced. It’s merely a question of how much time and energy you want to spend: pushing people takes a great deal of effort and tends to result in significant amounts of anger and frustration for all parties involved. Not, in other words, a conducive atmosphere for creating a strong, collaborative team.

Of course, sometimes it is necessary to have people do things they don’t want to do. Code does need to be commented, information needs to be documented, and so forth. Fortunately, unlike wheat, people can be convinced. Instead of pushing them, the key is to get them to pull: the best teams are the ones that know where they should go and will trample anyone who gets in their way.

So what are teams really? Why are some teams a marvel of camaraderie and high performance, while others burn out their members, leaving them exhausted and depressed? Why do people go from loyalty to opposition to the leader? What is the relationship between the leader and the team?

Organizational Psychology for Managers is an insightful book that reminds the business leader of basic principles of leading a successful organization in an engaging style.

Elizabeth Brown


Softeach, Inc.