Chapter 4 - The Code Of Clever Teams

The previous chapter provided a litany of problems, and now the authors wish to suggest some actions that can be implemented to address them. Their caution is that using the right approach first requires understanding the nature of the problem - and readers who skipped or skimmed the previous chapter would do well to page back and give the material more attention.

The core issue is that "there is a fundamental contradiction between the social processes characteristic of clever teams and the necessary characteristics of their work."

Clever teams are normally engaged in complex tasks that are not routine and exit in a complicated and convoluted situation, meanwhile the internal and external environments are dynamic and unpredictable, and the need to do something quickly often outweighs the need to do something effectively.

Effectiveness planning requires diversity, but clever people tend to be single-minded and want to silence or ignore opposition to their plans. Effective execution requires consideration of the people who will be affected or utilized in the solution, but clever people are aloof and arrogant and demand obedience, and in doing so stifle the cleverness of others and undermine their ability to gain cooperation.

Given these characteristics, it's fair to say that the teams and the work that they do is volatile, and can be challenging to keep such teams engaged in productive activity.

Team Cohesion

The characteristics of clever teams also run contrary to cohesion - very much like an all-star team, each member is a solid individual performer who is reluctant to cooperate with others, such that their combined effort may achieve poorer results than a group of less talented individuals who work together better. Getting the best of both requires skillful, even masterful, coaching ability.

It is also a matter of balance to get a team of people to work together without becoming a faction that sees itself at odds with other groups and teams within your organization and loses sight of the organizational goals while immersing themselves in the fine details. Arrogance can set in, and a sense of infallibility when a team begins to "believe its own propaganda" and ceases to be as meticulous as it should.

Diversity: Manner and Degree

There is conflicting advice about diversity within teams: some maintain that you need diversity to foster creative discussions and have constructive disagreements to get a well-considered solution, whereas others feel diversity creates competitiveness and splits a team into warring factions. It's another matter of finding a sweet spot between too little and too much, and the leader is charged with defining this position and helping to achieve it.

The author also stresses that in the HR department, diversity means gender, religion, culture, and the like - but that is a different kind of diversity. What matters more to productive teaming is that there is a diversity of knowledge and perspectives, and in many instances firms can build teams of demographically diverse people who are ideologically uniform.

Picking Your Own

The authors suggest that in their experience the best clever teams find one another - they are good at spotting other people they want to work with, so the best approach is to let them self-select as much as possible, rather than assigning people to teams. This will likely require quite a leap of faith.

(EN: I think the authors assume much. It's been my experience that workers, particularly intelligent and creative types, tend to be introverted and focused on their work and don't pay much attention to other people at all, as evidenced by a lack of social interaction in the modern workplace. Worse, managers are often of the opinion that conviviality is a waste of time and either discourage or fail to encourage interaction that is not necessary to the exigencies of the moment. In order for clever people to find one another, an office must encourage interaction more broadly so that they meet, or even notice, others. Most fail miserably at doing so.)

One problem with self-selection is cliquishness, and some management intervention is necessary to ensure teams have adequate diversity. "You don't get exceptional change and innovation from like-minded static-thinking people," one manager suggested.

Diversity in recruiting is also suggested: a team of people who all have ivy league MBAs in finance are all trained to the same ideology, more or less. You have to recruit unusual types. One anecdote is told of a team that include such diverse members as plastic surgeons and tennis players. Another manager mentioned recruiting people through organizations such as Mensa - people who are smart cal learn the granular details of a given situation, but people who are subject matter experts are often stuck in the box.

(EN: I've got a bad taste in my mouth regarding "intelligent" organizations, in that they tend to draw a certain distasteful personality type, narcissists with a need to show off their smartness, and who tend to be too immature and impractical to handle real-world problems. They tend to be "nerds" rather than "geeks.")

The Discipline of Teams

A random group of people is not a team, and simply calling them a team is not providing sufficient leadership for them to consider themselves as a team or to function a team. Until they develop the discipline to work together, they are just a group. Moreover, putting people together without a purpose or a common goal can damage relationships, preventing them from working together when a purpose for doing so actually arises.

There's a brief mention of people who have a passion for doing and those with a passion for achieving. The "doing" people often don't get to the end, and the "achieving" people get to the end too hastily. The authors suggest that sometimes you have to push teams forward, and other times it may be necessary to take projects away from them before they self-destruct.

There is the notion that the modern approach to leadership is a complete reversal from the traditional method, and a leader who disciplines his people is being domineering. Unfortunately, being completely hands-off is not an option, as teams will run amok. Deciding when to apply discipline and how forcefully is another delicate balance. However, this is easier to resolve because one can observe whether a team is making progress in the right direction, going in a wrong direction, or just spinning their wheels. The proper amount of discipline is just enough to ensure they are productive in achieving their goals.

Even the top leaders in organizations must yield to constraints, as the CEO must answer to the board of directions, and the board must answer to the shareholders. Each person must direct their efforts to the purposes given to them - and if there is no purpose, there is no objective for an effort.

Discipline is not merely guidance to an outcome, but the protocol for working together. Each member of a team must have an area of responsibility, and take responsibility for his area. Each must understand how his role serves and supports the needs of others, and direct his work accordingly. It's less like formal rules and procedures and more like an informal code of etiquette for interacting with others in a team.

The Natural History Unit of the BBC is "perhaps the best example ... of a self-directing team." This unit has produced a string of highly popular and acclaimed documentary programs. The unit is located in a separate office from the network executives, and is left alone to determine what it will do and how it will do it. Their directive is to produce "world-class nature programs" and so long as they are able to do so, management doesn't interfere.

Design for Serendipity

The need for leaders to provide vision and goals to those they wish to lead is a standard part of the job description - and yet few leaders have been successful in doing so. To make matters worse, leaving clever people requires a different approach to giving direction.

Leaders of clever teams must practice a more subtle form of leadership, providing a goal while leaving employees greater latitude in achieving it, and remaining open to unexpected opportunities. Serendipity is a vital element of clever work, and many great innovations began as happy accidents.

The authors go back to Will Wright, whose discovery of the SimCity game was something that happened as an offshoot to something else he was doing. If he had been reined in to focus on the main task and discouraged from doing anything that seemed wasteful, it would never have been discovered. (EN: Also consider that Wright's intentional project to develop Spore was a huge failure, making it all the more poignant that a brilliant person can succeed by accident and fail when trying to succeed.)

In that sense, leveraging the intelligence of knowledge workers cannot be done by micromanagement, but only by creating a sense of shared objectives and allowing those most capable to apply their minds to the goal. Their greatest contribution is not the precise and mechanical adherence to a known procedure, but about exploration and discovery.

A few remarks from another executive suggest that creativity is important at the onset, but ultimately, producing a commercial product requires "some amount of predictability" to meet production goals and ship dates. (EN: It's also notable that software and gaming firms are notorious for missing ship dates - though I suspect this is often from a lack of discipline to get the job done, or an unwillingness to relegated ideas that pop up at the last minute to the next version release.)

The same executive also talks about a "cellular structure" in which the team meets to discuss tasks and break them down, then splits up as people do the work largely on their own, and some of the most talented people withdraw completely, preferring to work at home between meetings. Too much collaboration causes lack of focus and squelches creativity. But it's a delicate balance between too much direction and too little.

It's also possible to yield some of the procedural control to the members of the team, asking them to define the ways in which their work can best be coordinated, directed, and kept on track. A single approach is not applicable to all groups and all situations. It's suggested that enthusiastic teams will do 50-60% more than what is expected of them, and have higher morale and productivity when they feel a greater sense of involvement.

Getting back to serendipity, the author lists a number of discoveries that were happy accidents: anesthesia, cellophane, cornflakes, dynamite, nylon, PVC, rayon, smallpox vaccine, stainless steel, and Teflon - and it's suspected that many others exist, though their origins are not admitted.

The problem is that the traditional business mindset is to regard any accident as being a problem that should be avoided, mitigated, and swept under the rug - as such it is likely that many happy discoveries are set aside in favor of less productive approaches that fit a preconceived notion - and it should be clear that strict dedication to a plan is good for productivity in situations where the factors are known, but deadly to innovation and creativity.

Making Connections

Clever people thrive on connections. While they often cringe at the notion of letting an "outsider" inspect their work in progress, it is often during such encounters that the interaction between the two results in an epiphany and great progress is made. Because clever workers generally won't make these connections on their own, it is often up to the leader to do so.

The most obvious example is connecting the R&D department to the rest of the firm - so that rather than coming up with impractical ideas in an isolated lab, the researchers can collaborate with employees who are closest to the front lines, whose input can help keep researchers from getting too far removed from reality.

A second example is the McLaren racing team - those who envision a new car, those who actually have to build it, and those who maintain and operate it. Keeping the three well in touch with one another is critical because the work cascades. A too-radical design will be difficult or impossible to build or maintain.

(EN: I recall another author talking about the trouble with hand-offs. Departments become myopic and attempt to streamline work in their own shop, without consideration of how that impacts the rest of the organization - particularly those who will inherit their output directly.)