June 12, 2006

How to build a great team

Harmony.  Cooperation.  Synchronized effort.  It's difficult, but it can be learned.  Watch the great teams very closely - and then join one of your own.

By Jerry Useem,

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit.  These four men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground.  Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

The A-Team went off the air in 1987 - still wanted by the government - but television has never produced a better blueprint for team building.  The key elements of its effectiveness: a cigar-chomping master of disguise, an ace pilot, a devilishly handsome con man, a mechanic with a mohawk and an amazingly sweet van.

Those particulars might not translate to all business settings. But clear definition of roles is a hallmark of effective collaboration.  So is small team size - though four is slightly below the optimal number, 4.6.  And the presence of an outside threat - like imminent recapture by government forces - likewise correlates with high team cohesion.  To wit: France and England, which bloodied each other for centuries before they noticed ... Germany.

Another universal characteristic of teams is that they're, well, universal.  If you work for a living, we're guessing you interact with other humans.  (Lighthouse keepers, we'll see you next time.)

If you think this is mushy stuff, marginal to the daily battle of business, consider what is happening at Sony.  CEO Howard Stringer and President Ryoji Chubachi are trying to restore the fighting spirit (and higher profits) at a company built on decentralized teams. Their theme: Sony United.

This issue also takes you deep inside a six-man team of Marines operating in Iraq; the team that built Motorola's RAZR phone; the cutthroat yet symbiotic pack of cyclists in the Tour de France; and the world of an open-source software company.

Each of these stories challenges a piece of conventional wisdom.  If "hire great people" seems like unassailable advice, for example, then read Geoffrey Colvin's "Why Dream Teams Fail."

The fact is, most of what you've read about teamwork is bunk.  So here's a place to start: Tear down those treacly motivational posters of rowers rowing and pipers piping.  Gather every recorded instance of John Madden calling someone a "team player."  Cram it all into a dumpster and light the thing on fire.  Then settle in to really think about what it means to be a team.

We're certainly not against the concept of teamwork.  But that's the point: All the happy-sounding twaddle obscures the actual practice of it.  And teamwork is a practice.  Great teamwork is an outcome; you can only create the conditions for it to flourish.  Like getting rich or falling in love, you cannot simply will it to happen.

We will go further and say: Teamwork is an individual skill.  That happens to be the title of a book. Christopher Avery writes, "Becoming skilled at doing more with others may be the single most important thing you can do" to increase your value - regardless of your level of authority.

As work is increasingly broken down into team-sized increments, Avery's argument goes, blaming a "bad team" for one's difficulties is, by definition, a personal failure, since the very notion of teamwork implies a shared responsibility.  You can't control other people's behavior, but you can control your own.  Which means that there is an "I" in team after all. (Especially in France, where they spell it Equipe.)

Yet this is not the selfish "I" that got so much attention during the "me" decade; it's the affiliatory "I" that built America's churches and fought its wars.  Neil Armstrong didn't get to the moon through rugged individualism; there is no such thing as a self-made astronaut.  "Men work together," wrote Robert Frost, "whether they work together or apart."

Here's both the problem and the promise of cooperation.  Humans aren't hard-wired to succeed or fail at it.  We can go either way.  In her study of groupwork in school classrooms, the late Stanford sociologist Elizabeth Cohen found that if kids are simply put into teams and told to solve a problem, the typical result is one kid dominating and others looking totally disengaged.

But if teachers take the time to establish norms - roles, goals, etc. - "not only will [the children] behave according to the new norms, but they will enforce rules on other group members."  Perhaps to a fault.  "Even very young students," Cohen wrote, "can be heard lecturing to other members of the group on how they ought to be behaving."

Economists have long assumed that success boils down to personal incentives.  We'll cooperate if it's in our self-interest, and we won't if it's not (sort of like lions).  Then a team of researchers led by Linnda Caporael thought to ask: Would people cooperate without any incentives?  The answer was--gasp!--yes, under the right conditions.  Participants often cited "group welfare" as motivation.

To economists, shocking.  To anyone who's been part of a successful team, not shocking at all. Life's richest experiences often happen in concert with others - your garage band, your wedding, tobogganing.  The boss who assumes that workers' interests are purely mercenary will end up with a group of mercenaries.

No battery of team exercises can fix that situation - especially if they involve spanking your colleagues with yard signs.  When a sales office of a home-security company, Alarm One, adopted that practice, a 53-year-old employee later sued for emotional distress.  (A jury awarded her $1.2 million in April.)

Again, let the greats show the way.  During a public appearance in 2000, an A-Team cast member was asked by a fan to name his favorite co-star. "Listen," Mr. T responded.  "That's wrong for me to pick a favorite, because I'm a team player and we were a team.  Remember, they say"--here it comes again--"there's no 'I' in team." No, but there is a "T."  And pity the fool who forgets it.

Why dream teams fail.  It may be tempting to recruit all-stars and let 'em rip.  Don't do it.  Dream teams often become nightmares of dysfunction.

By Geoffrey Colvin, FORTUNE senior editor-at-large

June 12, 2006

In what universe is it even conceivable that the United States could fail to reach the semifinals of something called the World Baseball Classic?  Not only fail to win, but could field a team that included Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Johnny Damon and then lose games to Mexico, South Korea, and - wait for it - Canada?  Yet it happened this year.

How could a movie starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Julia Roberts, directed by Steven Soderbergh, get tepid reviews and gross less worldwide than the star-free My Big Fat Greek Wedding?  That movie was "Ocean's Twelve."

And how could a FORTUNE 500 company run by a brilliant former McKinsey consultant, paying fat salaries to graduates of America's elite business schools, dissolve into fraud and bankruptcy?  It happened at Enron.

If someone tells you you're being recruited onto a dream team, maybe you should run. In our team-obsessed age, the concept of the dream team has become irresistible.  But it's brutally clear that they often blow up.  Why?  Because they're not teams.  They're just bunches of people.

A look at why so many dream teams fail, and why so many of the most successful teams consist of individuals you've never heard of, yields insight into the essential nature of winning organizations.  As always when the subject is the real-world behavior of human beings, the takeaway includes things we always knew - even though we rarely behave as if we do.

The most important lesson about team performance is that the basic theory of the dream team is wrong.  You cannot assemble a group of stars and then sit back to watch them conquer the world.  You can't even count on them to avoid embarrassment.  The 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team consisted entirely of NBA stars; it finished third and lost to Lithuania.

By contrast, the 1980 hockey team that beat the Soviets at the Lake Placid Olympics was built explicitly on anti-dream-team principles.  Coach Herb Brooks, who died in 2003, based his picks on personal chemistry.  In the story's movie version, "Miracle," Brooks' assistant looks at the roster and objects that many of the country's greatest college players were left out (professionals were not eligible to play then).  To which Brooks responds with this essential anti-dream-team philosophy: "I'm not lookin' for the best players, Craig.  I'm lookin' for the right players."

To see why dream teams so often disappoint, let's consider the most common paths to failure.

  • Signing too many all-stars
  • Failing to build a culture of trust
  • Tolerating competing agendas
  • Letting conflicts fester
  • Hiding from the real issues