A number of years ago, an oil company was working on a billion-dollar proposal to design a superior offshore rig and drilling method to optimize the deepwater oil exploration process. They brought together a team of world-class experts in each of the technical phases of offshore drilling—the idea being that they could combine their individual areas of expertise in a synergistic way to come up with the optimum drilling process.
Seems like a smart approach, right? Well, it was failing miserably.
For all their impressive credentials and skills, the team was getting nowhere. In fact, the experts were so proficient in their own specific areas, and their expertise was so deep and narrow, it had created impenetrable silos. No one could get through to each other.
In a recent article about Google’s Project Aristotle team effectiveness initiative, one of the project’s researchers, Julia Rozovsky describes her own team challenges when she was assigned to a study group as part of her MBA program. “Everyone was smart and curious, and they had a lot in common,” the article notes, but for Rozovsky, it was a stressful dynamic, filled with conflict, criticism and jockeying for position.
With more people being asked to collaborate to get things done in businesses today, it’s likely many organizations and team members have had similar experiences. You bring together these great minds to tackle tough challenges, but it just doesn’t pay off. And one way or another, some or all of that world-class talent is being wasted.
Good Teams, Bad Teams—You Know You’ve Had Your Share
Of course, the very bad experiences tend to stand out, but so do the very good ones. Rozovsky goes on to talk about an entirely different experience she had with a case competition team, which she ended up sticking with through her entire MBA program, even after the study group decided to disband. This very diverse group collaborated, brainstormed and even had a lot of fun as they went on to come up with viable (and competition-winning) solutions to real-world business problems.
Whether in work, school, sports or some other environment, at some point we’ve all been on a team that just works. Everyone engages, contributes and listens to different perspectives. They may argue about different ideas or how to move forward, but it’s productive rather than destructive. People feel inspired and feed off the group’s combined energy and talents, even when they disagree or their suggestion doesn’t win out. Together, they do more and achieve better results than they could have on their own, no matter how talented each individual might be in their own right.
The “good times” don’t have to happen by luck. We can actually create the conditions for every team experience to be like this.
Bringing Intention to Your Team Process
We worked with the oil company mentioned above to help them get to the bottom of the problem and turn the team around. Here’s what we—and the team members themselves—discovered:
There were major technical barriers between the individual areas of expertise. Team members saw the problem very differently and were unable to relate to solutions based on technologies other than their own. They were bringing widely varying thought processes and perspectives to the table, which were all important to developing this complex proposal, and which would be essential to implementing the project successfully. But if the team members couldn’t communicate with each other and weren’t able or willing to see value outside their individual silos, they would never get the technical cooperation and give-and-take they were looking for.
This is why it’s so powerful to have a way to understand the thinking diversity on a team upfront and then make it part of the team’s mode of operation going forward. When we worked with this team, we were able to help them see not just how their thought processes differed but also both the value of those differences and where they might create problems for them. This is an intentional approach to setting up a team for success, and it paid off. After applying several different creative processes, they jelled and were able to get the breakthroughs they’d hoped for.
How many teams never really get there, or end up with results that don’t measure up?
Teams are the engine of the workplace today, and we need synergy, whether the group is very diverse in makeup, like this one, or whether it’s more homogenous in background, skills and perspectives. When it comes to thinking, there are advantages and disadvantages to both kinds of teams. Whether you’re assembling a team, leading one or just participating on one, it’s important to know how to get the advantages of all the talent and diversity of thought you have.
Here are some key questions to ask to help you get more intentional about your team process:
- How do different people on the team prefer to think? This will affect how they communicate, behave and approach work.
- How does the diversity of thought on the team contribute to team outcomes and objectives?
- How can we leverage that diversity of thought to move from conflict to “creative contention”?
- What does the team’s thinking look like as a whole? Consider the similarities, differences, strengths, gaps, areas of alignment and misalignment, and how the team’s thinking changes under pressure.
- What process flow will be most effective for the team to help it work efficiently and productively?
- Do we have a supportive team climate, including a facilitator/leader who can bridge the gaps and ensure the diverse thinking is respected, managed, heard and applied?
Get intentional—the earlier in the process, the better. Yes, there’s an upfront investment of time, but you’ll avoid wasting a lot of time—and talent—in the long run.