Teamwork – a reprise

Listening to a recent talk, I learned about the pulling power of Clydesdale horses. The basic premise is that while an individual horse has impressive pulling power, when two horses are put into a harness their joint pulling power is greater than two times their individual contributions. This is a simple, real-life example of the saying attributed to Aristotle: ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. On hearing the Clydesdale horse fact, I immediately thought that it would be good to use it to describe the benefit of teamwork. So, on my return from the talk I looked up the various pulling achievements, so as to be able to add more detail. Many of the articles identified by my search criteria were about teamwork, as may be expected; I do not claim to have original thoughts all of the time! One site, at the top of the list, stated that the pulling power of two horses in harness was three times that of an individual horse, but if the horses were trained together then the pulling power can be further increased to four times the individual contribution.

So, wouldn’t life be easy if all our colleagues were Clydesdale horses? Disappointingly, we cannot extrapolate this benefit of teamwork over to humans. In fact, a study by a French agricultural engineer showed just the opposite effect. Funnily enough, this study also investigated pulling power. It showed that when two individuals pulled on the rope they only exerted 93% of their individual efforts, when three individuals pulled on the rope they exerted 85% of their individual efforts and a group of eight only exerted 49% of the sum of their individual efforts. This effect is known as the Ringelmann effect, after the engineer who conducted the study, and subsequent studies have confirmed what is also referred to as ‘social loafing’.

It is difficult to identify a single cause for social loafing and explanations include: the outcome from the group is being measured so I believe I can get away with slacking; there is no point in exerting myself when I believe others are not trying; no one will notice if I ease back a little; we can easily do this as a team so I do not have to fully exert myself; they are getting paid more than me so they can do most of the work; and lack of attachment to the team means an ambivalent approach to the team goal and colleagues. In essence, these can be summarised by a loss of individual motivation and problems of coordination between team members.

This phenomenon can be frequently observed in professional sport. Teams of superstars bought with large amounts of money often fail to deliver. Conversely, teams without superstars often achieve beyond what is expected of them due to team spirit and hard work. A lot of people spend a lot of time and effort in trying to build a high-performance team and still get it wrong. One team that is always in the news at the moment is the UK Cabinet and one opinion, reported in the media, is that this team is dysfunctional due to differences of opinion. In its defence, it is said that a difference in views within a team is a good thing. While maintaining my neutral political stance in this column and not passing any judgement, it is recognised that organisations made up of different types of people are more productive than homogeneous ones.

About the time that I heard about the pulling power of the Clydesdale horses, I made a note to the effect of: ‘Network science shows that diverse thought is far more productive than groupthink. Surround yourself with people who are genuinely different from you’. Unfortunately, when scribbling the note I did not record its origin because I overestimated the capabilities of search engines and the internet! However, I did come across a New York Times interview from 2008 (so not new information!) with Scott E Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics, who said that diverse groups come up with more/different ways of seeing a problem and, hence, faster/better ways of identifying solutions. He went on to say that there is evidence “that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.”

All of this provides a challenge for the NDT community. How do we embrace diversity within the profession? How can we benefit from diversity through the use of teams, when the standard operating model is a qualified individual undertaking a prescribed task? Technology is available for inspection data to be viewed remotely by personnel other than the operator performing the inspection. How can we maximise the benefit of this technology? What process changes in training and certification will be needed?

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438300; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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