The Essence Of Great Teams
No matter what field of work, or which role in which company, everyone needs to work in teams at some point or another. Every company, club or even theatre group vies for a dream team. After all, there’s much to be appreciated in having a strong team of individuals. Everyone benefits from success.
Shane Snow’s Dream Teams (2018), shows the science behind dream teams by highlighting examples from different industries and different times. He scrutinizes the strategies employed by many great teams in succeeding time and again. He charts the elements that make a dream team and how simple strategies and rules can be applied in creating one’s own dream team.
In any team, diversity is a crucial element. It not only helps a team think in creative ways but also increases the chances of finding the right solutions.
Let’s look at a case in 1974, when the FBI was trying its best to subpoena a Newark, New Jersey based Mafia boss. The law then was clear. It was necessary for a person to obey a subpoena and appear in court only if it was delivered personally and directly to the person.
The Mafia boss, knowing this had surrounded himself with bodyguards to avoid the same, and not one FBI agent was able to come close to him to personally deliver the subpoena. Chris Jung, a young female agent came up with a plan. She went undercover to the mafia Boss’s daughter’s wedding and delivered the subpoena to the boss directly as he was welcoming guests.
Jung was successful because, in a male-dominated profession, she was a woman. No one suspected her. She proved to the agency that brawn and strength weren’t needed all the time and that successes could be won with clever manoeuvring, intrigue and disguise as well.
Diversity, racial, gender-based, or otherwise adds different perspectives to a team. The different lived experiences of different people add to the way they see, think and solve problems. Diversity helps in challenging people in a team to re-evaluate entrenched prejudices and perspectives.
Furthermore, diversity leads to decisions that are strength-tested for success. In 2013, four different universities in the US invited about 200, self-identified as Republicans or Democrats, people to participate in a murder mystery scenario.
Though the scene itself didn’t wasn’t politically oriented, the participants were told that they would be explaining the solution of the mystery to people of opposing party allegiances. The participants were then better prepared with stronger arguments, proving the benefits of diversity.
A Little Bit Of Tension
Conflict is a sign of preparedness to find solutions, whereas silence leaves issues unresolved. This is evident when one observes that couples who argue all the time, tend to stay together for longer. In fact, the researchers at the Gottman Institute show that when it comes to relationships, couples that stop talking to each other indicate long-term relationship issues, more than frequent arguments.
The same is true of teams in organizations. Organizational silence is a clear indicator of problems down the line.
Detroit-based Chrysler and the German car manufacturer Daimler decided to merge in 1988, however, the venture was a massive failure only 3 years into the merger. DaimlerChrysler was worth only half of what the company was at the time of the merger.
What caused the problem?
DaimlerChrysler, unfortunately, didn’t become a fusion of the best practices of both culturally different companies. Surprisingly, the conflict was seen in the ways of working of the utility-oriented Chrysler workers and the quality-oriented Daimler employees. There was no discussion encouraged between the two parties, and they rarely interacted. This cognitive friction led to organizational silence.
Conflict isn’t always bad, though. If we look at one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time, The Wu-Tang Clan which was formed in 1990, one can see that they used their differences – of musicians of different ages, characters and musical influences – to create ground-breaking beats and lyrics, and ended up moving the whole genre of hip-hop forward.
However, conflict always reaches a point where the tension doesn’t help stimulate ideas and discussion. It could even lead to toxic animosity. The Wright brothers knew and understood the risks of this well. They used an interesting strategy to avoid hostilities. They would swap sides and argue each other’s points. They were actually able to detach the argument points from the person and reassess their own stubbornness.
The Power Of Playing Together
While the strategy used by the Wright brothers was helpful, it doesn’t always work as well when applied to groups with more deep-seated animosities.
Around the turn of the century, many communities in Buenos Aires were at loggerheads. Perspectives were different, and swapping sides at a community scale was impossible. However, as the Argentinian nationality was evolving, dominated by pibes, or kids that played on the streets with a football, regardless of social class, race, religion, etc. soccer actually brought them together.
The explosion of the soccer scene in the country helped diminish the animosity between the different communities, as different people played together.
According to research, when individuals play together, they see each other as participants of an ‘in-group’, irrespective of which side they play on. They feel more empathetic towards opponents rather than feeling threatened.
Biologically, the brain divides people into ‘in-groups’, people who are similar and who can be trusted, or ‘out-groups’, people who one is more likely to have a suspicious feeling about. The amygdala in the brain is responsible for this feature, as it triggers levels of adrenalin to increase when suspicious people are identified. As adrenalin increases, blood pressure and heart rate increase as well. In fact, it takes a very small sign – even something as small as hearing a foreign language – to set this response off.
Playing together, helps one increasingly view others as ‘in-group’ participants, as the Argentinians did. Trust increases and people get along better.
The saying, ‘don’t change a winning team’, is commonly believed among business circles. While the saying might hold some weight, the fact of the matter is that successful teams tend to get stuck with old ways, that have led to their successes. Innovation, in such teams, tends to get stagnant.
Consider a company ‘G-Corp’. It struck gold in the 1980s with its ‘blister cushion’ – a bandage that would release medication onto a blister over time. While it enjoyed initial success, its fresh ideas weren’t as good, the sales of the company began to decline, and it couldn’t attract new customers.
G-Corp was forced to reinvent its successful team. They hired Sense Worldwide, consultants who helped G-Corp to expand their markets. The company needed the shock to be able to move ahead.
To understand the customer base better, the consultants started by setting up focus groups of individuals who were particularly susceptible to blisters. They made the G-Corp executives draw a circle around the participants’ blisters and then discuss their needs.
This exercise resulted in a new line of plaster-type products varying in shape and thickness depending on the severity of the blisters. What Sense Worldwide did, was introduce someone, or something that challenged the view of the executives – one way to change the team.
Another experiment conducted in 2009, had American students teamed up in three’s to solve a murder mystery. After about 20 minutes, a fourth member – a devil’s advocate – was added to the team. The study revealed that after the addition of the fourth member, the chances of the teams succeeding doubled.
What worked for them was that group of three was forced to cross-examination by the fourth member and had to test their arguments and choices.
Bad Ideas Can Lead To Useful Solutions
The author once headed to the Tretyakov Gallery to see Kazimir Malevich’s ground-breaking Black Square painting. Painted at the beginning of the 20th century, the painting was actually just a small canvas painted black. However, it was the story behind the painting that was intriguing.
Before the Black Square, artists, Picasso included, would portray beauty and reality in their paintings. Black Square changed that tendency and the need for the portrayal of reality and reality alone. It freed art and showed that art could be a vehicle for cognitive expansion and enriched visual communication.
Inspired, El Lissitsky – one of Malevich’s students – put these ideas into action by designing propaganda posters for the Russian Communists. However, when the power of art to influence the masses proved to be too much, Lissitsky fled to Germany. It was these artists who founded the Bauhaus art movement that redefined the role of art in global advertising and industry.
This example proves that initial ideas, even when not liked, can still have a lasting impression and influence. It is unwise to completely dismiss an idea before it is fully formed.
Another example of city planners of Winooski, Vermont, wanted to reduce the freezing town’s heating expenses by building a large dome that covered the whole town with federal funding. As their crazy idea gained national coverage and intervention from President Jimmy Carter in 1979 to stop the building of the dome, it actually helped the town to secure funding for a hydroelectric plant nearby. The funding was, astonishingly, the second largest per-capita funding amount in the history of the US.
Winooski got its heating issues resolved. And it was because a bad idea got people taking!
Mutual Respect And Superordinate Goals
If we consider the allies of WWII, the authoritarian Communist Soviet Union and the western capitalist democracies were unusual allies. However, when Hitler’s Blitz proved to be an existential threat, both these ‘poles-apart’ ideologies put aside their differences and got together.
Superordinate goals get different people from varied backgrounds together.
In another example, when the British, during the war of 1812, tried to recapture a newly independent America and had planned to send military vessels up the Mississippi River, the New Orleans port stood in their way. Andrew Jackson, an American General found himself poorly matched against the British forces. He was forced to add pirates, African American militia, volunteers with hatchets, and even prostitutes to his own cavalry. Jackson hated his new troops and the feelings on the other side were mutual. However, with differences set aside, the unusual cavalry beat the British in 1815 and saves their country from an invasion.
However, post the battle, the animosities returned. The State of Louisiana attempted to reclaim pirate property. Despite the success of the war with the British, they couldn’t overcome their differences completely.
However, in a team, if mutual respect and a culture of teamwork are nurtured, one can avoid dissolution. For example, an experiment conducted at a boy’s camp in 1954 had the boys divided into two teams – the rattlers and the Eagles. Both the teams came to hate each other.
They were soon given certain challenges that forced them to compromise and work together. After the first challenge, they got back to loathing one another. However, as more and more challenges of working together were given to the two groups, they began trusting each other, began to empathize, and by the last day of the camp, all animosities were gone.
Malcolm X, the famed civil rights activist had a lot that contributed to his beliefs that white and black communities should be kept separate. Not only was he a radical member of the Nation of Islam, but he also had unpleasant experiences with white people during his younger years. For him integration was impossible.
Research has shown that human opinions are the result of how the brain interpolates beliefs based on past experiences. However, as Malcolm X later found out, there is a way out.
When one is put in a strange environment, one tends to assess one’s own intellectual standpoint with humility. One starts becoming more receptive to new ideas if one immerses oneself completely in the different culture that surrounds one. Moving away from a comfort zone enables one to see things with a new perspective – one that is disassociated with one’s individual identity.
Malcolm X acquired a multicultural perspective when he travelled to Mecca in 1964 and in Africa after that. He saw different cultures and ethnicities all living in harmony. He started to believe that it was possible in the US too.
However, such reassessment isn’t easy. One has to be able to recognize one’s own prejudices and be prepared to approach intellectual arguments with humility. One then can value arguments and discussion on the basis of their rational merits alone.
Malcolm X was able to reassess and reconsider his entrenched opinions, and thus exemplifies intellectual humility. This lesson holds true for teams as well. How?
While the diversity of opinions in a group can increase its chances of finding a solution, it is not necessary that the right solutions will be settled upon. Here, if the members of the group are willing to reconsider their opinions, then a difference of opinions will result in a rational debate. Essentially people have to display intellectual humility, and if the debate is rational, there are more chances of the right solution will be chosen.
Increased Empathy By Sharing Stories
When people share their life stories with one another, they elicit empathy. Thus in a team, members are better equipped to understand each other.
Paul Zak of Claremont University conducted a series of experiments that studied the production of the hormone oxytocin in participants under certain conditions. Oxytocin is produced in the body when one experiences kindness or trust.
His experiments showed that the production of oxytocin in the body when participants were shown charity advertisements of cancer patients sharing their life stories, or of pets that suffered at animal shelters was more than when they were shown statistical adverts of the same. The story-based adverts also increased the participants’ chances of donating to the cause.
Stories help people relate to each other. It helps people put themselves in other shoes empathetically. Stories have also been central to some of the most important social justice milestones. For example, attitudes of people toward Asian Americans and the gay community have drastically changed in the past century, whereas earlier they were some of the most negatively stereotyped.
In fact during WWII, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, over 120,000 Asian Americans were put in prison camps. It positively portrayed characters on TV and in films that helped change people’s perceptions. For example, Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek challenged racial stereotypes and was eloquent.
Similarly, around the 1950s homosexuality was considered a crime. It was only when gay people started coming out and sharing their stories bravely, did perceptions change.
It can be difficult to assemble and to manage a dream team. However, provocation, diversity, compassion, empathy and intellectual humility can go a long way.
Great teams can often result in work that is greater than the efforts of an individual. However, building a great team can be frustrating too. Creating dream teams and maintaining them takes time and effort.
One has to be able to respect diversity, appreciate a little tension, play together, be willing to change, have patience with ideas and opinions, have mutual respect, have compassion and empathy, and above all be willing to face challenges together.