Chapter 3 - The Anatomy Of Clever Teams

There is a war for talent in the business world, among firms that recognize that star performers are always in short supply and can make a significant difference to whether and organization thrives or falls behind. However, the authors feel this puts too much emphasis on one person. When an investment firm poaches a star fund manager, that person often brings with them other key members of his team.

There's a but about McLaren racing, which is said to be one of the most successful racing teams in Formula One. While drivers often get the glory, they are backed by a crew of mechanics and a team of engineers, all of whom are focused on winning races. Their engineering staff is more than 140 people whose efforts must be tightly coordinated to meet inflexible deadlines (you can't be five minutes late to a race or deliver a vehicle component the day after) and be able to change direction quickly and react to the unexpected.

Racing is a very competitive situation, but so is business. They compete for the customers, compete for resources, compete for investors, and so on. Their performance is tallied in their financial results, and often in real time rather than once a year or once a quarter. Every company is a large team, often made up of many smaller teams, all of whom must not only perform their function but coordinate with others to ensure that the firm wins.

Anatomy of a Team

In previous ages, teams of people were like teams of oxen, harnessed together to leverage their physical capabilities under the direction of a driver. Rewind just forty years and it was found that teamwork was about compliance: employees did as they were told, followed detailed instructions from their manager, and sought to avoid conflict.

A major shift occurred in Japan after the second world war, in which the lower ranks of employees were empowered to seek ways of improving processes and managers communicated and coordinated. In many ways, the manager was a servant of a work team in this approach to organizing activity.

(EN: Two points to consider. First, what happened there was rather unique as Japan had been largely flattened by the war and had the opportunity to start over, and established firms in established economies have completely failed to follow their example because they lacked the opportunity to completely reboot. Second,

the Japanese model has been highly successful in promoting efficiency, but efficiency is much different to innovation and the two are often incompatible.)

An anecdote is presented from a pharmaceutical research firm, indicating that the work of scientists cannot be commanded by managers and discovery doesn't happen by fiat. What the managers there do is get various scientists together - mostly biologists and chemists - and get them to share ideas and work in concert. Success happens when they find ways to support one another and collaborate on solving problems. Management can't tell them what to do, but merely encourage and facilitate.

Case Study: Poor Leadership

The authors mention the cautionary tale of William Shockley, a British research scientist who won a Nobel price for his contributions to computer science, as one of the co-inventors of the transistor among other devices. He was widely respected and gathered around himself "some of the finest minds in electronics" - and decided to start his own company in Palo Alto.

As brilliant as he was as an engineer, he was hapless as a leader. He micromanaged his people, fractured them into small teams that were forbidden to speak to one another, and otherwise "fanned the flames of mutiny" and provoked his brilliant employees to leave and start up on their own.

The result was that the firm shed talent, and that many of the best-know companies in silicon valley were started by small bands of defectors from Shockley Semiconductor: Intel, AMD, and National Semiconductor. In many ways, Bill Shockley is the man who built silicon valley - but this had more to do with his stunning incompetence as a manager rather than his brilliance as an inventor.


Putting together the best and brightest team may not be productive if their efforts are not well orchestrated. One researcher into team dynamics called this the "Apollo Syndrome" (EN: not after the space program but something on a British reality-TV show, alas) in which a team of the brightest people fall into conflict among themselves as each person tries to outshine the other and the whole team fails miserably.

Without teamwork, the team does not function. And that said, the authors mean to review some of the basic concepts of teamwork.


The competitive nature of people can be destructive to teams when each person wants to be the stand-out person in a group, to the detriment of the others. Consider the number of partnerships that fell apart from power struggles, or the number of rock bands that collapsed when "artistic differences" led to conflicts among the members, each of whom wanted the rest to follow his lead.

In organizations, the desire to promote "healthy competition" often backfires and fractures their organizations into silos. Even when it is unintentional, the various teams within an organization become competitive or at least indifferent to one another. Particularly when a firm offers a panoply of services under a single brand, customers recognize the conflict, and many companies are struggling to re-integrate themselves.


Another factor that builds teamwork is interdependence, understanding how each role depends upon the others and how working together is the path to a better outcome. Consider the conflict between doctors and nurses in hospital teams, each focusing on their role in caring for a patient, whereas the patient feels caught in the middle of warring factions.

If shared objectives gives people common goals to achieve, interdependence enables them to recognize the way in which working together is the means to achieve them. People become a team, departments become a company, and the us/them schism and the concept of "turf" disappears.

It's also noted that interdependency cannot be faked. If each member of a team has no need for the other to accomplish the goals, even if they are common goals, then they can do without one another. They can be colleagues, but are not teams.


Being aware of others seems to be a basic requirement, but it is often observed only superficially. The salesmen are aware of the customer support desk and are aware that they will support the customers that sales brings in, but they are unaware (or uncaring) of the negative impact that their behavior can have on others in the organization - and so the salesmen bring in customers whose needs are not satisfied, and who take out their exasperation on the customer support staff. "This kind of behavior is simple selfishness," the author writes (EN: but he fails to mention that "selfishness" is often encouraged by management - setting sales quotas or rewarding top sellers without considering the behavior that will result.)

This is particularly a problem for teams of clever people, each of which is individualistic and competitive. Consider the professors in the same department of a college, each of whom is focused on "his" students and syllabus, and who seldom consider that his course is part of an educational program - such that others will inherit his students and he will inherit theirs in the following term.

Another example is computer programming, one of the joys of which is complete intellectual immersion in a problem. A programmer can write a software function that provides a simple and elegant solution, but does not play well with other functions in the program, or the system, or the entire technology architecture of the firm, or the technology of partnering firms. In effect the clever programmer builds a very good part that doesn't fit into the machine.


Getting teamwork right is thus a matter of giving people common goals, to which each can make a valid and meaningful contribution, and in which each person is aware of the impact that their work will have on others. When clever teams get this right, the results can be truly amazing.

One example is drawn from a major research effort at Oxford university, in which about 200 scientists worked on 25 different projects, all geared to having a closer understanding of the link between human genetics and predisposition of diseases. The astounding results of the project were credited to management who discouraged competition and encouraged collaboration by means of a central managing committee that had regular conference calls to keep their teams working in support of one another.

The Ideology Of Clever Teams

The authors list, without much elaboraton, a number of factors that make it particularly difficult for clever workers to participate in teams: there is no standard configuration for a team of knowledge workers, their work product is intangible and often invisible, there is a culture of individual achievement, thinking through a problem is often solitary, technology tends to separate rather than unite people, and time constraints make a conversational process seem a waste of time.

The authors also list, again without elaboration, the kinds of clever workers that exists: the geeks, the creative types, the problem-solvers, the strategists, the resource managers, and so on. Each archetype comes with its own ideology and self-image - and most of their ideologies maintain that they are the center of the universe and everyone else is in a supporting role.

Even when clever people are organized into teams, there are often overlaps and conflicts in their work. The teams within an organization function as independent tribes, with conflict at the borders.

Geek Teams

While the term "geek" is often associated to computer programming, it can be used in the broader sense to include any profession that depends on technical knowledge that is obtuse and ill-understood outside the profession. Investment analysts are geeks, medical researchers are geeks, automotive engineers are geeks, brew-masters are geeks. While the areas of subject-matter expertise differ greatly there is significant overlap in their behavior and proclivities - and they are all prone to the same four distinct challenges.

  1. Geeks have a tendency to be over-specialized, expertise in a very narrow field with little expertise and interest in anything else. Further, they are "introverts ... most comfortable working alone, concentrating on problems small enough to be attacked by only one person."
  2. Geeks are typically obsessed by their own particular specialty, and expect teammates to compromise to them while being unwilling to compromise for the team.
  3. Geeks tend to fall in love with technology for its own sake and can be forgetful or neglectful of the (business) goal for which technology is being adopted
  4. Geeks have weak interpersonal skills. It seems like a stereotype, but it is widely true: being aloof and distant to others is part of the image, and bothering with others is a distraction from the object of their interest.

What compounds these four issues is that each of them separates the geek from the rest of the world - they create their own clique and speak their own language, and become an insulated and isolated group within the organization.

Creative Teams

The authors' tautological definition of creative teams are "individuals who define themselves in terms of their creativity." (EN: He likely means individuals involved in design, graphic arts, and the like, but that's a guess.) They have slightly different problems:

  1. The "most creative" member of the team tends to dominate and prevent the others from contributing.
  2. Creative types are drawn to novelty at the expense of effectiveness and efficiency
  3. The often lose sight of the commercial context of their work and want creativity for creativity's sake, tossing time, budget, and business goals out
  4. Passions run high in creative teams and members are likely to come into conflict, and take conflict very personally.

Creative people "deliberately act out their creative selves" and can be very complex and unfathomable individuals. They can be openly disdainful of the "business side" of organizations and have little patience for spreadsheets and slide-shows.

Professional Teams

By "professional" the authors mean doctors, lawyers, accountants, and academics - who are geeks by a different name, but more importantly they hail from long-standing professions that have traditionally been held in high esteem. With the exception of those who work for highly prestigious institutions, they identify more with their profession than with their current employer.

As with the others, the authors list some of the special concerns for this group:

  1. They have a tendency to be "willfully naughty" because they feel society owes them a great deal more than they have received, and tolerance for childish and petulant behavior is a standard perk. A few examples are given of unabashedly infantile behavior.
  2. More so than the other groups, professionals are galvanized against feedback. "I am a professional" implies "nobody knows better than me" and they act accordingly. This is often to cover for a fear of losing face.
  3. Professionals feel that they own the relationship with the client or customer and their firm is inconsequential, which is a major obstacle to collaboration or cross-selling where affirm offers multiple services.
  4. A tendency to be finicky and pedantic in setting rules and norms. Splitting hairs is their normal mode of operation and huge amounts of time and energy are wasted on matters of very little consequence. Not only is this an obstruction to others, but they tie themselves up with theory.

The author returns to the healthcare industry, which has a long history of failure in providing quality care to patients because doctors are very insular and share little information except when it is strictly necessary. As such a patient may be served by a dozen or more different doctors who seem entirely detached from one another and thoroughly uncoordinated. On the rare occasions that doctors do communicate, it is not productive. Each specialist is an "inflexible know-it-all" who disputes the others' diagnoses and plans for treatment, so the patient isn't merely bewildered and neglected, but receives conflicting information.

In health care, the way people work together (or fail to do so) can literally have life-or-death consequences - but even when it is not so dire, it undermines trust in the profession and degrades the quality of patient care.

Troubleshooting Teams

The authors provide a rather vague description of this kind of team, and admits that there is overlap because every team is engaged in problem-solving for much of the time. But there is a "distinct type of organization" whose business consists entirely of solving problems and dealing with unusual situations, such that there are teams who are routinely in a position of dealing with a problematic situation and are attempting to overcome rather than achieve something new. Their need to do something significant and quickly differentiates them from other clever teams.

For these teams, the author has observed three tendencies:

  1. Troubleshooters are drawn to quirky solutions. A simple fix is not very creative or innovative, even if it happens to work.
  2. Troubleshooters are perfectionists. They are often inclined to disregard a "good enough" solution to a problem in favor of something more extensive that fixes a problem completely and permanently - and spend a great deal more time and resources necessary in pursuit of perfection.
  3. Troubleshooters are trouble-finders. When they have solved one problem they move on to the next, and if there is no problem to solve they will seek to invent one.

(EN: The last is not merely a team problem, but an organizational one. A group of people are gathered to solve a problem, but realize that once the problem is solved they may be out of a job, and so they find other reasons for the team to continue to exist. Once the projects ends and they fail to disband, they end up filling their time doing things that don't need to be done and are often obstructive. So while I'd agree that care is needed to tend to troubleshooting teams, likely the most important thing to do is to ensure you know when the team should cease to exist - and if you have a standing "troubleshooting team" it's a sign you're not doing that very well at all.)

Strategy Teams

Strategy teams are a specialized problem-solving team that evaluate the competitive environment and develop plans on the corporate level. Their plans are usually broad and dramatic, such as mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations, changes in markets or products and the like. Four particular problems are described:

  1. Strategists tend to be elitists, regarding themselves as the masters of the organization an intellectually superior to those who will do their bidding. This leads to abundant hubris, accompanied by the tendency to make staggeringly ignorant miscalculations and obstinate refusal to compromise on their vision.
  2. They can easily become detached from reality, paying attention to the "high level" details and missing what is obvious to those who are closest to the operations. A great deal of bad strategy takes place in such a vacuum, with pointed ignorance of the facts.
  3. Strategists are heavily reliant on data and presume that "the numbers" tell the full story - ignoring that they may be skewed and that a great many important things can't be quantified. They disappear into theory and scoff at reality when it conflicts with their conclusions.
  4. Because of the complexity of their work, they tend to be ponderous and unable to draw quick conclusions - and given the speed of change in the global economy they are often behind the times and their brilliant ideas can become irrelevant overnight.

Consulting forms are excellent examples of strategy teams, and very often excellent examples of these problems. They live in a world of theory and deliver plans that cannot be executed upon, or are doomed to failure by their detachment from the real world.

It is extremely important to manage strategy teams appropriately and keep them grounded. Because their work can impact an organization dramatically, it has the ability to have serious and even fatal consequences that destroy billions of dollars in value. (EN: Netflix comes to mind - their ill-conceived notion to discontinue their DVD by mail program caused the stock price to plummet, and they literally lost billions in market capitalization the very day they announced their intent.)

Strategy teams also suffer from the same problem as troubleshooting teams: they never know when to quit and assume strategy should be ongoing, which keeps the organization in a constant state of chaos for the sake of giving them something to do with their time. (EN: I would compromise by suggesting strategy teams should be ever vigilant for the need to alter their plans, but if the strategy is changing every quarter or every month then the firm loses its integrity and ability to execute - work is left half-done to start on something else, over and over, and the organization never really accomplishes anything.)

Management Teams

The most visible and least understood team are those consisting of senior management - the corporate board and executive council. This consists of a group of strong-willed people who wield considerable power, and who often have a high level of autonomy and very seldom meet to coordinate their efforts.

  1. They exercise authority without accepting responsibility, handing off grand ambitions without the necessary resources to accomplish them and dodging responsibility for failure by setting up others to take the blame and consider themselves to be above the law, whether they simply ignore it or change it to suit their whim of the moment.
  2. They fail to simplify. Many individuals rise to management from lower roles where they are engrossed in the details, and have trouble changing their mindset. As such, leaders become blind to the things they ought to pay attention to and waste time and attention on things that are easy but inconsequential.
  3. They fail to delegate. Powerful people loathe giving up power, even if exercising power requires them to delegate to others - and when they do delegate they micromanage their supporters, reducing the brightest minds to drudges and driving them away.

Not only do these shortcomings cause them to be mediocre in their work (or fail completely), but because they have a broad range of authority, their mistakes can cause the suffering of many. The high turnover rate in many organizations can be attributed to bad management (though management usually finds someplace else to lay the blame).

Uniquely Similar

This chapter has focused on the dynamics and issues of different kinds of teams, which may lead to the notion that they require different approaches. But while the problems seem highly unique, they all stem from a similar set of causes that have to do with the same underlying failures in regard to the basics of teamwork: shared goals, interdependence, and awareness.

This is the reason the authors thing that a common basis of theory should be broadly applicable, but that it will need to be filtered and adapted according to the characteristics of a specific situation.