Change Kills—If You Don’t Have the Right Teams
The more you study the career of Steve Jobs, the more obvious it becomes that Jobs, the most famous solo businessman of modern times, was partnered at every step along the way with another individual or team, most of them all but unknown to the outside world. Further, when he teamed up with the wrong partners, his career went into a tailspin; and when he found the right partner—an individual or a team—he succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams but his own.
Might it be that the lone hero is actually the exception, and the two-or-more-person team the secret rule? Bill Gates? Well, he had Paul Allen, then Steve Ballmer. GE’s Jack Welch? Numerous field generals. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg? Sheryl Sandberg. Alibaba’s Jack Ma? Jonathan Lu. Invariably, when you look behind the great man or woman of industry, you find one or more other key players who, for one reason or another, stay in the shadows.
Finally, did Steve Jobs see himself as a lone hero? Perhaps, but it’s hard to ignore what he told 60 Minutes: “My model for business is the Beatles: They were four guys that kept each other’s negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts. Great things in business are never done by one person; they are done by a team of people.”
The Power of Difference
Cultures, armies, social organizations, and enterprises—all have long grappled with the challenge of team composition. That is, what is the best combination of team members that will achieve the greatest possible result—and not blow up in the process?
The traditional approach is to look at particular teams and assess the overall level of particular traits. Or, conversely, to look at variations in those traits among the team’s members. But that approach has taken us only so far. So, lately, social scientists have taken a different, brain-based approach. This new approach examines how team members’ task-specific abilities complement each other in accomplishing particular group tasks. This underscores something we already know from real life: “dream teams” don’t always perform as well as teams composed of lesser players who exhibit great chemistry do.
A Dive Inside The Hive
This is a good place to address the subject of “group minds” or what is called transactive memory. This notion has been picked up by popular culture, especially science fiction, as the equivalent in higher-order animals of the “hive mind” found in bees, termites, and other social insects (Star Trek’s Borg). In fact, transactive memory is a much more prosaic concept, but one with important possibilities.
First promulgated by the scientist Daniel Wegner in 1985 and elaborated on by other scientists in the years that followed, transactive memory is used by teams to benefit from a collective awareness of who knows what and therefore to both direct incoming knowledge to the appropriate group members and to retrieve vital information from within the group
They do this not through some kind of mind-meld (though it can seem like that to outsiders) but because they communicate a lot. In the process, they gain a common understanding (a “metamemory”) of who knows what, and which member has a particular expertise or skill—as well as what the team doesn’t know. Once again, this process begins with collaborative strategy meetings, and, perfected over time, it can result in a team that can maneuver very quickly and not waste time searching for answers to questions or determining the right person for a job. Research confirms that teams with transactive memory perform better than their counterparts who lack it because the group’s members efficiently identify and use relevant knowledge and generate higher-quality solutions.
Most successful large organizations exhibit this transactive memory, whether they know it or not. For example, there is always one person in the organization who knows the company’s early history, or how to fill out travel vouchers, or the policy on leaves of absence—and everyone in the company knows who that person is. As an outsider, if you want to find these people, one of the quickest ways is to track the company’s internal emails and phone traffic. Wherever they cluster, that person is likely a transactive memory node. Stupid companies will sometimes fire these key employees during layoffs—and then fail to understand why they are losing more productivity than people. Mess with your transactive memory employees at your peril. You’re better off giving them lifetime employment.
Diversity: A Double-Edged Sword
It would be nice if we could simply apply a standardized notion of diversity to the recruiting of group members and then get on to the task at hand. Unfortunately, while most researchers agree that diversity is a key contributor to team success, they can’t agree on precisely what constitutes that diversity. Indeed, some believe it to be very different from the “diversity” we refer to in everyday language or in government regulation.
In two studies in 2010 involving nearly 700 people, Anita W. Woolley and her colleagues examined teams of two to five members working on a wide variety of tasks. They identified a general factor relating to intelligence in groups that explained their performance more than anything else. Interestingly, this intelligence factor was strongly correlated with neither the average intelligence nor the maximum individual intelligence of the group’s members. Rather, and this proved especially surprising, they found that the intelligence factor in groups is correlated with:
- The equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking
- The average social sensitivity of group members
- The proportion of females in the group
But not everybody agrees.
Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, political science, and economics at the University of Michigan, is the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. In it, and in comparison with Woolley, he identifies three causes of cognitive diversity:
Page argues that team members’ training and experience are the dominant causes of cognitive diversity, while genes are a relatively minor factor. For Page, it is not apparent diversity (such as differences in gender, age, or race) that promotes better group performance, but rather diversity in people’s heuristics, perspectives, interpretations, and predictive models—all of which are derived from members’ cultural backgrounds, training, and experience. It is this diversity, he argues, that can enable diverse groups to perform better than individuals or homogenous groups.
Thus, the role of female members in a team, so important to Woolley, is to Page just another example of different perspectives at work.
Page’s conclusion? When managers and organizations build and promote teams with inner (and not necessarily apparent) diversity, they can reap the benefits of group diversity.
So what are these inner factors mentioned above?
- Heuristics are quick and simple techniques used for finding solutions. For example, the rule of 72 (72 divided by percent of interest rate is the number of years required for an investment to double).
- Perspectives are representations of the set of possible solutions, and they can simplify problems. For example, certain problems are simplified using polar coordinates instead of Cartesian coordinates.
- Interpretations are ideas drawn from our observations of events and people. In these observations certain aspects are highlighted and others ignored to draw causal inferences.
- Predictive models are models created from a combination of interpretation plus a prediction for each set or category created by an interpretation.
These so-called inner factors are quite a bit different from what we think of as traditional diversity. Indeed, they may be just the opposite. If Page is right, then the standard (and often government-required) “diversity” practice of hiring graduates from a similar set of top universities while ticking off the boxes for race, gender, ethnicity, and so forth may be a misdirected effort. As externally diverse as these new hires may be, their socialization, training, and education may render them very similar to other new hires in terms of the heuristics, perspectives, interpretations, and predictive models they use to solve problems and achieve their goals. In other words, they aren’t diverse at all—and filling a team with them will likely prove to be suboptimal.
So just hiring more women as per Woolley works for Page only if those women come from sufficiently unusual backgrounds to think differently from their new teammates. Otherwise, if they are merely cut from the same cloth as the male members of the team, they will have only a minor impact (that is, there will be a comparatively small cognitive difference between the sexes). What matters most are differences in culture, class, and aptitudes.
Getting The Best From Diversity
The bottom line is that your greatest chance to create a successful, productive team involves a diverse membership—but the more diverse that membership becomes, the worse the odds are that the team will survive long enough to produce those results. So you need a strategy to mitigate the cost of that increased diversity. The scientific evidence suggests that this strategy should take two tracks.
First, diverse teams need to be actively managed. Abandon now any notion you have that you can build the most powerful team possible, wind it up, and let it run by itself. In fact, the more diverse the team, the more hands-on management it will need.
That means, with larger groups, that you must be very selective about the team leader you choose. You will need a pro, not just, say, someone selected from the team. You will also likely want to relieve that leader of any duties that contribute to the operations of that group and reserve to them the job of full-time management. That, of course, will require increasing that team by one member, with a commensurate jump in the team’s budget. It also means that with small teams—that is, pairs and trios—you will not be able to, as usual, leave them be. Rather, an external manager will be required to provide regular oversight.
Managing Teams to Genius
SAS, a private corporation, is regularly listed as one of the world’s best places to work. Employees enjoy a beautiful corporate campus, free child care, fabulous food, doctors on staff, salons, and so forth. Not surprisingly, it has 3 percent turnover per year.
Amazon, said the CEO and ex-Amazon employee, is the opposite. It “works the shit” out of its people and retains them for an average of one year. Yet, by any measure, Amazon is hugely successful—arguably even more successful than SAS.
If SAS is successful with a nourishing culture, and Amazon with a harshly meritocratic one, why do both work?
The answer is that both SAS and Amazon are clear about their culture. There is no confusion or dishonesty—but rather authenticity and trust—to both companies. SAS’s message is: spend a career with us. Amazon’s is: challenge yourself with us. By comparison, mediocre teams and companies don’t know what they are. They say one thing and then do another. They blow around like the wind, and they destroy authenticity and trust.
It all begins at the beginning. Effective leaders, in their own way, achieve three tasks at team launch:
- Clarify and give meaning to the team’s task
- Bound the team as one performing unit
- Establish norms of conduct
This helps explain why both independent and interdependent group work can be effective. Research shows that groups perform best when their task and outcomes are either purely the product of group work or purely the product of individual effort.