Another kind of team

The conventional wisdom on how a team should operate

The conventional wisdom on how a team should operate

I’ve been around a lot of teams… and a lot of team building.  Enough to be cynical about the whole topic.  But something about the potential of people working well together keeps me coming back to explore further.

The famously successful Netflix contest awarding $1 Million to anyone who could solve their movie recommendation problem is a great case to illustrate how creative teams are different than traditional work teams.

The leader of the winning team credits their success to blending different approaches to the problem and coming up with something better.  This is one of the things that powers successful design teams at IDEO.  That is, teams comprised of diverse perspectives and styles are better  at solving complex problems than teams of like-minded, similarly trained members.

One quote in a NY Times article about the Netflix Prize really got my attention:

The sort of sophisticated teamwork deployed in the Netflix contest, it seems, is a tricky business.  Having these big collaborations may be great for innovation, but it’s very, very difficult. Out of thousands, you have only two that succeeded. The big lesson for me was that most of those collaborations don’t work.

Tricky maybe, but that’s because much of the conventional wisdom about running a good team is wrong under conditions of uncertainty, not because it’s inherently hard to accomplish. Most people think of teams as a group effort where you divide the workload among a cohesive band of players, led with clear directions from a focused leader.  Under this model of teaming, diversity is bad and discontent worse.  So with this dominant mindset, it’s no wonder the concept of multidisciplinary teams is so hard to handle.

Given the value created by multidisciplinary teams, there’s a growing body of insights developed by people like Jeff Polzer and Daniel Wilson that show us some of the tricks multidisciplinary teams employ to overcome the barriers of their diversity.

And, if you are working on a creative task or solving a complex problem, the effort pays off.  Just ask IDEO.

Here’s some keys to getting multidisciplinary teams to work (pardon the academic lingo, but you’ll get the point)

1. Proactive Self Disclosure: teams effective at solving complex problems must thrive in uncertainty.  It’s more functional to share when you are stuck or “don’t know” than it is to pretend you do.  Daniel Wilson studied adventure racing teams and found that the “best of the best” quickly share their needs, issues and concerns so the others on the team can rally around them with proper supports and solutions.

2. Conditional Statements: Instead of stating ideas as facts, certainties, or “THE” answer; members of successful problem solving teams share statements with soft edges like, it might be…  I’m not sure but… and could it be that? These statements invite others to disagree or add to the comment versus attempt to be persuasive, conclusive and to convince others to go along.

3. Interpersonal Congruence: This means that members of a group view each other the same as they each view themselves (strengths, weaknesses, intentions).  Jeff Polzner’s research shows that groups can achieve harmony and produce effective work processes by expressing rather than suppressing the characteristics that make them different.

4. Clarity of Purpose: when all members of a team are clear about the reason they are together, it’s easy for them to “triangulate” away from polarized opinions and use the common purpose to discern the best of each side’s argument.  Rather than compromise to reduce conflict, this common purpose (like the Netflix Prize) pushes people to breakthrough ideas.

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