Cowboys and Teamwork

By on February 20, 2019
Cowboys and Teamwork

Walking down the production line, I stopped to talk to a worker. I asked him what he thought some of the barriers to increased productivity were. He replied:

“Nobody wants to follow the work process our team developed. They all want to do it their way.”

I’ve heard more than a few variations of this comment as I’m sure many readers have. “I’ll do it my way” thinking is present in far too many work environments, and its presence is very destructive, wielding a negative impact on product and service quality as well as on profitability. Given its damaging impact, why does this kind of thinking persist? Many factors reinforce it. For example, the failure of many organizations to support collaborative thinking drives many employees into cocoons. That said, I believe the persistence of “I’ll do it my way” thinking can be primarily attributed to it being continually reinforced by the Cowboy Myth.

The cowboy of American mythology still stands as a heroic image in the minds of many people.

Many popular songs reflect it. The popularity of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll do it my way” was largely driven by listeners who agreed that “doing it my way” was the best way to live and to act. Johnny Cash’s “you can take this job and shove it” glamourizes expressions of rebellion made by an individual who stands alone in asserting independence from the group. He’s the cowboy on steroids. And the plaintive title of Paula Cole’s top ten 1997 hit “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” is one more reflection of our infatuation with the Cowboy Myth.

And then we have The Marlboro Man. Conceived by the Leo Burnett Ad Agency in 1954 and running until 1999, it’s considered one of the most iconic ad campaigns of all time. By simply lighting up a Marlboro an ordinary guy could transform himself into a rugged cowboy, admired by all. By 1982, Marlboro was the number one selling brand of cigarette. The mystique of the cowboy obviously grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. And why not. Doesn’t everybody love a cowboy?

The basic message conveyed by the Cowboy Myth with its hyper-individuality is that living freed from the constraints of outside authority (“take this job and shove it”) is a great place to be.

It isn’t. On the contrary, it’s a very destructive place to be.

There are many examples of the Cowboy Myth’s destructive nature, none more illustrative of the myth’s potency than one described by Atul Gawande MD in one of his TED talks. In it, Dr. Gawande, author of the award-winning book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” recounts his development, with the help of the Lead Safety Engineer from Boeing, of a checklist targeted at reducing death rates during surgery. Following tests in eight hospitals around the world, Dr. Gawande’s checklist was shown to cut death rates in surgery by 47 percent.

Armed with these results, he took his checklist to surgeons, very optimistic about its acceptance. Why shouldn’t he have been optimistic? A checklist that had demonstrated it would drive a 47 percent decrease of death rates in surgery would, of course, be immediately accepted by all surgeons. Dr. Gawande’s optimism was shattered when he presented it though, as many of his colleagues said they wouldn’t use it. Dr. Gawande’s explanation for this seemingly strange behavior, as stated in one of his TED talks, was this:

“We’ve hired way too many cowboys and not enough pit crew members.”

In a later TED talk, Dr. Gawande reflects on the impact “cowboy” thinking has on the organizations’ ability to be successful in today’s very complex world. He tells us that “as individualistic as we want to be, complexity requires group success.” And he tells us that in order to move from “cowboy-think” to “pit crew-think” the following shifts in the values an organization focuses on must occur:

  • Independence to Humility
  • Self-sufficiency to Discipline
  • Autonomy to Teamwork

Here’s a link to Dr. Gawande’s TED talk:

All of us have experienced the impact of cowboy thinking in the workplace. I’ve heard comments like these.

  • We’ve got our own little individual tricks that work for us.
  • Look, I’ve done this work for a long time. I know how to do it and I don’t need any checklist to tell me how to do it.

I’m sure you’ve heard similar comments, all of which reflect cowboy thinking. Just like the comments made by the surgeons who refused to use Dr. Gawande’s checklist.

A suggestion: Have your leadership team view this TED talk and discuss its implications for your organization. I’m certain that doing so would lead to a very productive exchange of ideas. Cowboy thinking stands as a potent barrier to a leadership team being able to exercise meaningful leadership. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

And how can we remove cowboy-think from our organizations? Here’s an article I wrote that addresses this very important issue.

St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of resources on leadership and lean manufacturing that you can use to drive cowboy-think out of your organization. To learn more about these resources, call Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022 or George Friesen at 314-303-0612 and let’s arrange a time to talk. I’m certain you’ll find it time very well spent. And may we all be pit-crew members.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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