Effective teams are often not composed of easy-going types. And some degree of ‘creative abrasion’ may be a requirement if you are seeking genuine excellence. Collaboration is not always about getting along but it’s always about peak performance. And when it comes to effectively innovating in the social era, high performance team-work is still its foundation.
A range of recent research and papers published by Cap Gemini and Forrester have consistently highlighted that collaboration is now recognised as being a key driver of innovation. And in their 2011 Innovation Monitor General Electric reported that whilst 86% of senior executives they surveyed viewed collaboration as vital to innovate, only 21% had the culture and people to do so.
Exploring the history of entrepreneurship, ideas, commerce and science shows that the importance of collaboration and co-working should not surprise us. Writers such as Steven Johnson, William Bernstein, Scott Berkun and Tom Kelley have all written that innovation success extends from the smart exchange of ideas, technologies, networking – and building of alliances. Berkun famously identifies that a belief in the lone genius is a particularly dangerous myth of innovation and Steven Johnson, who studied the stories of great breakthroughs in science and business in his book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ – reinforces this view with his famous comment that; ‘chance favours the connected mind’.
Of course, individual talent, flair, skill, craft & graft is needed in any organisation but getting that hive-like talent to stay focused and unite for a common purpose is the type of difference that can make a real difference.
The need for greater collaboration has led to some commentators such as Nilofer Merchant to suggest that we are entering the ‘social era’ of business – an age that will be highlighted by fluid and open communications, de-layering of management structures and flexible working. Traditional organisations will struggle to compete against agile and nimble players who can embrace a new way of working that goes far beyond ‘command and control’ – and is closer to the style of social media and freelancing than formal conglomerates. For this reason, 2013 is likely to be the year when conversations about Unified Communications and Collaboration Software will fill many a meeting room and call. These modern tools are designed to help speed up the flow of information and decision-making through in-house social media, avoiding or even getting rid of email, shared files and the latest VOIP and conferencing technologies. McKinsey estimates organisations who effectively use these technologies can obtain up to 35% efficiency and quality improvements through the use of these new ways of working. Whilst these new tools are useful tools to support team work, at its heart, effective collaboration still relies on something very human: the ability of individuals to come together and work as a cohesive and effectively. How do effective teams work? What do they do, that those that fail, do not do?
Last week I was fortunate to hear the excellent Khoi Tu discuss his latest book, ‘Superteams – The Secrets of Stellar Performance From Seven Legendary Teams’ – when he spoke in the stunning surroundings of the Great Room at The RSA in London.
Tu adds a valuable and highly readable addition to the current team work literature. He examines a range of organisations and how they create effective teams; from the cutting edge creativity of PIXAR Animation to the dangerous precision of the SAS. And from the high-speed pressures of Formula One engineering to the bohemian world of the Rolling Stones, he has examined some great examples of team-work success and what it is – and what it is not.
So what characteristics do these teams share? What often comes as a surprise is that great teams are often not composed of steady and easy-going types. By their very nature – high achievers are not satisfied with being average and accepting easy solutions. The SAS for example is often comprised of military mavericks who know when and how to break the rules when they need to (see my previous piece Seth Godin And The Taleban). There is a need for stubborn belief that can lead to them often being seen as radical outsiders. As General Montgomery said about the WW2 founder of the SAS, Colonel David Stirling; ‘He’s quite mad. But in a war, we need people like him’. And the Rolling Stones are comprised of vastly different characters, with sometimes explosive temperaments – who nevertheless can come together to deliver more than they could do when working alone. Or as Ronnie Wood puts it; “I honestly believe that none of us are as strong individually as we are collectively”
Some degree of conflict and unreasonableness, it would appear, is not therefore a bad thing. Indeed, some form of ‘creative abrasion’ may be a requirement to blend a truly great team. A lot of research suggests, as does Tu in this book, that a healthy dose of debate and challenge can help. It is often said after all, that the spark of creativity can ignite in the clash between new and different ideas.
However, teams do not just bicker and fall apart. Tu also identifies the importance of cohesion; sticking together through the hard times and creating a common bond, built around trust. In addition, all the teams explored by him have a clear and compelling purpose that attracts the best talent to focus together. Most importantly, he notes that the best teams are always, always improving the way they are doing things. In this point, his findings reflect those of another prominent researcher into team effectiveness, Humphrey Walters – who says the secret of great teams is ‘consistently doing 100 things 1% better – not 1 thing 100% better’. (see my previous piece on Walters, ‘On The Soft Skills of Winning‘)
Walters was the management advisor to Sir Clive Woodward leading up to the England’s triumphant 2003 Rugby World Cup victory where after seven years of work, the trophy was won in the last thirty-five seconds. He went on to work alongside Chelsea FC and the incredible BT Global Challenge Round The World Yacht Race. Having worked (and sailed) – alongside the very best teams – Walters emphasises the devil and team victory lies most often ‘in the detail’. In his work he notes that great teams develop their own rules and standards, rather than have these enforced from above. Such team rules are often not revolutionary nor filled with the latest management jargon. Rather, good teams are built on simple agreement on the ways of working such as; turning up on time, having the right environment, pride in your work, doing what you said you were going to do. However – constant open and honest communication, even if may lead to some argument and disagreement – is vital.
The importance of being more than just individually good is also important in highly technical environments that require great personal talent. For example, in their recent work ‘Team Geek’ two senior Google software engineers, Brian Fitzpatrick & Ben Collins-Sussman also examined team-work and collaboration from their insight into the world’s greatest software engineering teams. A key piece of advice they offer to geeks and non-geeks alike, mirrors the view of Berkun and Johnson, when they remind the reader that; ‘working in isolation leads to disappointment’
So what do they say leads to success? They identify three simple key pillars of teamwork and collaboration; HUMILITY, RESPECT and TRUST. Success, they point out, is built on winning allies and supporters for your ideas not just being the smartest. And they emphasise; ‘lose the ego and don’t come across like a know-it-all’ – and their advice is that as well as learning your craft, the smartest people need to learn how to ‘play well with others’ too.
This is a point explored further in the work of Morten T Hansen too, who describes the need for ‘T-Shaped People’ in his book ‘Collaboration’. For Hansen, the valuable executives are those T-Shaped people, who combine their vertical depth of expertise PLUS a horizontal breadth, to enable them to effectively work across the organisation, building focused links, connections and new conversations.
‘Superteams’ by Khoi Tue is a great addition to the canon that has explored great team work over the years. Extreme sporting endeavour, commandos and rock stars may seem unlikely to share much in common but ultimately we can recognise the patterns that have driven their successes. Collaboration is often wanted and increasingly a precursor to innovation but it is easier said – than done. In our own CollaborativeEdge Programme we emphasise that successful collaboration and partnership programmes start in the personal behaviour of those involved and we focus strongly on the importance of leadership conversation and building the internal sponsors and networks who can build momentum. Most business partnerships, alliances and innovation project failures are a result of lack of soft communication skills – not the hard mechanics. Individual brilliance is needed – but is simply not enough.
As Tu puts it in the forward of Superteams – ‘Individual excellence is both necessary and critical but the skill and the will to build, lead and perform in a team is often the difference between success and failure. Even for individual stars, failing to work effectively in a team can be a career limiting flaw. In an interconnected world the inability to be a good team player can have the same effect as Krypton on Superman’
Thanks to Khoi Tu for a superb talk – and The RSA.
For further information on collaboration, partnership management please visit Benchstone Limited
You can read more from Andrew Armour at www.andrewarmour.com.
Download Andrew’s white papers on collaboration and gamification – here.
You can read more about Khoi Tu and his work by visiting Inverstar.