By Scott Berkun, October 24, 2005
It’s hard to understand good teams until you’ve been on both good and bad ones. Some stars, people of high talent, are poor judges of teams because they’re focused on standing out rather than the desire to succeed. Most managers always seek the best talent, but that can betray the needs of a successful team.
The myth of all star teams
All-star teams lose. While it’s an honor to be chosen to an all-star team, it’s miserable to play on one. These teams are constructed without consideration for how to bring people together. Whenever an all-star team plays a mediocre, but intact team, they usually lose.
The true goal of any team is not to have the best players: it’s to win. Success comes when a team uses their abilities towards a goal, something you don’t get merely by picking the best players at each position. It’s a rookie managerial mistake: you can’t hire assuming people work alone. No one works alone. You have to understand how people will collaborate and choose people that fit (or that create useful tensions you carefully manage). This may mean passing on the stellar, but volatile, candidate and choosing someone whose skills will both amplify, and be amplified by, the talents of others (See The No Asshole Rule). Instead of a 3rd star, your team might best be served by an above average person who has skills the stars you have lack.
I know many seasoned managers that ignore this advice. They believe that if they always hire “the best” the team will sort itself out. This is true, but not in the way they want. Teams will stabilize but not necessarily in a desirable fashion: good people may leave, morale may drop and productivity may suffer. If everyone needs to be the star, they’ll fight unnecessary battles over pride. And the more volatile the mix of people, the more work a manager has to do to stabilize a team. Hiring is only part of making good teams: someone has to guide each person into a role suitable for their talents and interests, but that simultaneously supports the greater good.
You do always want stars: provided they are stars that fit. If you can’t find a star that fits, you want the best possible person that does fit or you must consider re-designing the team.
How good teams work
The magic word for teams is synergy: a group whose combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects. It’s the difference between thinking linearly (2+2=4) and geometrically (2×2=4, oh wait). To the inexperienced, synergy is impossible. How can 5 people, working together, produce more work than 5 individuals? There are at least three ways: trust, communication and pride.
Trust: If we share a foxhole and I trust you to watch my back, I can apply 100% of my resources to the problem at hand. My focus is greater because you are there. It may also turn out that my task, reading a map in Greek, is something you can do better than I. If I trust you to read the map (while I watch your back, of course) you can do in seconds what would have taken me hours. And then if we switch, I watch your back, or translate your German map for you, we both work much faster at our individual tasks that possible alone. With enough trust we are both willing to make sacrifices for the other without fear and can work faster than others, even when under stress.
Communication: In nearly every war movie there’s a scene where a unit of troops is directed into action by their sergeant, using only hand signals. They talk, ask short questions, and confirm orders with a few short movements of fingers and palms. If they do it right, they all move with complete understanding of each other’s movements and can predict where everyone will be and what their responsibilities are. Communication is leverage: a team of people can act with the clarity and speed of a single mind. And when there is doubt or disagreement, it’s the quality of communication that enables quick negotiations and improved decisions.
Pride: We are social creatures. We work harder when we know others are depending on us. Good teams merge self respect with respect for the team. People want to do well not only so they look good, but so the entire team looks good. There is a new kind of pride that is larger than any individual and if it’s done right, it feels better to help the team succeed than it does to succeed alone.
These three things, trust, communication, and pride are obvious in the abstract, but difficult to practice. Any time I’m called in to help a struggling team, one of more of these attributes is in trouble and often the cause leads back to the person that hired me. The blind spot of many managers is their own behavior: they can’t expect their team to develop the right trust, communication skills and pride if they don’t develop these things on their own, in their own lives. Before a manager can ask his team to trust him, he needs to grow and reinforce his trust in them. (And if he himself has never been on a trust based team, it may be impossible for him to create, much less lead one).
The misguided star
We’re all servants to our egos but it’s the talented that have the greatest risk of slavery. If they’re not careful their self image can be constructed around their ability to perform: a shaky foundation for anyone’s psychology. If their emotional lives have no other sources of positive validation they will sacrifice everything, health, friends, dignity, sanity, to maintain their self-image about their work. Many young stars are at risk: they haven’t sorted out yet the difference between being talented and being successful (or happy) and they can become unpredictable when that gap in their psychology is challenged.
The common first traps stars, and their managers, face are to disregard trust and communication in the name of talent. A star may flinch at trusting others since he believes he can do better himself: to trust someone with less talent (in his mind) is to waste his own. Communication and negotiation, hallmarks of good teams, may also put the star in uncomfortable situations where his talent (and his self-identity) is questioned. The trap is sprung as soon as the team leader offers a star a special set of rules. Special rules violate the trust of the team. The focus shifts away from team success to personal pride and the manager must spend time managing egos, instead of progress. Like a brick thrown against a windshield, special rules fracture teams into small dangerous parts, the effects of which can be impossible to repair.
It’s up to the manager to fuel the star’s ego in the same way as the rest of the team: through doing work that helps towards group success. Instead of special rules, the rewards should be based on performance towards goals (defusing any managerial confusion between people they like and people worthy of rewards).
The good manager returns everything to the team: team goals, team benefits, team pride. They find ways to apply individual talents in ways that help the team, carving out assignments that make synergy possible. Every individual assignment is connected, with bright yellow lines, back to a higher level goal for the entire team. The logic is empowering and undeniable. People know why their talents matter: because it helps the team. They see why helping a peer or subordinate matters, not just because it’s nice to be nice, but because it moves the whole team forward. Some necessary individual goals may arise, but the good manager helps people complete them without derailing the larger goals.
Some leaders cultivate rewards for their team by sheer force of personality. If everyone respects him and he cares deeply about the team, they will want to earn his respect and follow his values (their reward is his glowing response to their work). But mediocre and even bad leaders can simulate this effect through organizational rewards. Some percentage of bonuses, raises and benefits should be distributed on the basis of the team delivering on its goals. If the team has committed to finishing the project in 5 weeks, then the whole team should get a reward when that goal is met. Some sports teams give every player a 10% salary bonus for making the playoffs: why should your team be any different?
But do avoid meaningless rewards. Don’t patronize your team. I once worked in a group that gave an award everything month for “outstanding achievement”. There wasn’t really an outstanding achievement every month: we all knew this. But because our manager felt obligated to do something monthly, the awards were given out anyway. And they weren’t tied to goals, had no monetary or symbolic value, and defused the pride we all tried to build. Either do rewards right, or don’t do them. If you’re not sure what to do, there is nothing easier than a nice team dinner (e.g. Ruth’s Chris, not Taco Bell), paid out of the leader’s own pocket if necessary, to reinforce the value of the team as a healthy and supportive unit. If money is an issue, throw a good BBQ at your house: people will chip in and help with time and cash if you need it.
Always provide individual and team rewards: if you do it right they should play off each other.
What good stars do
It is true that talented people are worth more, it’s just not in the way most people think. A talented person can do more work than others (sometimes 5 or 10 times as much) in the same amount of time, but they can also set an example of behavior for others to follow. Simply outworking other people can have a negative effect on others: that 5x improvement may create a -2x impact on everyone else: if the star demoralizes others and goes out of his way to embarrasses them with his talent, morale and productivity are sure to drop.
However if the star is able to teach others, help them to close the talent gap between himself and them, or do work that helps make others more effective, the benefits of his talent are spread across the team. Perhaps he can mentor a young rising star or use his instincts to find a diamond in the rough. Good stars (and managers) know all this: they look for ways to make others better and provide a role model for others to emulate. Michael Jordan, a talent worthy of any size ego, made sure to diffuse the downsides of his gifts. He worked harder in practice than any other player, eliminating the excuses anyone might have for not working as hard as they could. At the peak of his career he won championships by knowing when to pass the ball and give the limelight away.
It’s the brightest stars that recognize how much they need their teams to succeed.
References & Notes
- Joel Spolsky has a good essay on star programmers, Hitting the high notes.
- Eric Sink’s comments on Joel’s essay.
- John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach, has a pyramid of success for teams (Flash).
- The 5 dysfunctions of a team, Lencioni. A fable about teams: not quite as annoying as other “business books as fiction”.
- Photo #2 (soccer team) courtesy of lukewater & stock.xchng.