March 20, 2017
Almost a century ago, Elton Mayo conducted his famous Hawthorne experiments that led to the recognition that teams can be beneficial not only for companies but also for those they employ. Today, most companies view teams and teamwork as a good thing. In fact, research suggests that the use of collaborative groups has increased by more than 50% over the past two decades. Teams clearly provide a competitive advantage when they operate well. The problem is that designing and managing teams is a complicated undertaking. It requires a level of commitment and creativity that many firms, and their leaders, are lacking.
There are, however, a number of bold companies experimenting with new team approaches and, in so doing, discarding performance-limiting practices from the past. These companies reject the following three assumptions about what is needed to maximize team performance:
In extreme teams, members share a passionate belief not only in their work but also in their firm and its contribution to society. These firms often have a cult-like quality, seeing themselves as unique and destined to make a difference in the world. They also have a deep faith in their ability to overcome adversity in pursuit of their higher purpose.
Whole Foods, for example, strives to hire people who are deeply passionate about food and its role in helping people lead healthier lives. The company is data driven in many respects, but the “all in” nature of its people is the key to its culture and ability to engage customers.
By contrast, members of conventional teams often view their work as a task to be done, usually in a professional manner but with no shared passion for their work or the team’s larger purpose.
Cutting-edge firms and their teams are very particular about who they invite to become members. Each develops a unique set of screening practices to ensure that members have the right mix of personal motives, values, and temperament. They understand the importance of hiring and promoting people who have the traits that fit their culture. Online retailer Zappos wants people who believe in serving others and increasing their level of happiness by providing the best possible customer service.
In contrast, conventional teams select members almost exclusively based on past experience and level of functional skill—with little or no regard to cultural fit. Members of extreme teams need to be capable, but they also need to be a good cultural fit. The founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, describes this as finding the right people, not the best people.
Extreme teams are biased in favor of conflict, even encouraging it among members. These teams believe that fighting over the right issues, regardless of the discomfort it causes, results in better outcomes. Equally important is the ability to take on big challenges and the risks associated with innovation.
Pixar, an innovation leader, has a culture that is family-like in many respects but also focused on doing what is needed to create great animated films. Pixar has developed a number of mechanisms to improve each film as it progresses, including meetings where people engage each other at a level of honesty and even toughness that is missing in most large corporations.
Pixar’s culture stands in contrast to more traditional groups, where people often view conflict as something to be avoided or even a sign of failure in regard to how a team is operating.
Each company must develop its own approach to implementing effective team practices. There is no cookbook for doing so, and the approach taken needs to fit the history, culture, and values of each firm. You can learn from what firms like Pixar and Airbnb have done, but you can’t simply mimic their tactics.
In addition, sustainable success requires a larger organizational environment that truly values and supports teams. Creating that type of culture is the job of senior leadership—one that can’t be delegated or done halfheartedly if teams are to boldly push their companies forward.