I had the pleasure of listening to Khoi Tu talk about teams at the RSA in London. Khoi’s slogan is: “building a better world, one team at a time.” – which resonated with much of what we are trying to do here. His talk draws from his book: Superteams: The Secrets of Stellar Performance From Seven Legendary Teams

The problem with many team meetings is that they can feel like a monologue with witnesses. That’s not how great teams work. However, Tu says that he finds great teams do start with great individuals. Great individuals are often awkward, or at least difficult to manage. That’s not a bad thing, as George Bernard-Shaw put it “all progress is due to unreasonable people.”

Start with good people

While great individuals are important, in most areas it is teams, not individuals, that achieve things. Steve Jobs learnt that lesson when he was removed from Apple because he wasn’t working with the team. On starting Pixar, he hand picked a great team, and built an amazing success story together with them. Another great team success is The Rolling Stones, especially as they represent a business that has turned over 1.3 billion in revenue. Like any good team, said Tu, they have different characters, creating both conflict and cohesion. While Jagger is a firebrand, the other team members balance out with different attributes. The harmoniser, the stoic, each has their place in a super team. In great teams there is creative friction between the different individuals, but there are also things that keep them together – teams need a compelling and common purpose to keep them on track and performing.

“A powerful idea pulls people together”

Teams need this balance of conflict and cohesion to work. Too much cohesion, and creativity drains away, and group think sets in. Too much conflict, and the team breaks apart. You absolutely need both, to get the best ideas and the best execution.

Team excellence is a learned habit

Tu talked about “the protocol for performance” – super teams have a codified way of doing things (something that can often become a culture) and an agreed way of assessing performance. There is a democracy of ideas, but a dictatorship of decisions. Ideas are freely explored, but commitments are made and adhered to – this is the balance of creativity and execution.

“Practice really does make perfect.”

Formula 1 teams get good by practicing pit stops over and over again. Practice is key in any team – whilst there is creativity in exploring ideas, there is consistency in execution.

The Q & A after Tu’s talk raised some interesting questions. The first was about size. Teams fill that gap between an individual and the organisarion, but there does seem to be an ideal size, generally from 4to 12.. The Red Cross says you need at least 4 people to get the benefits of diversity, but beyond 12, is becomes difficult to “herd the cats.”

The same objectives and no disproportionate rewards

There was also a question about leaderless teams, which Khoi answered with the example of the SAS, which recruits highly independent, free thinking individuals, who are also completely submitted to the discipline of the team. Ideally you want teams to be as flat as possible, but there is a place for heiracrchy, although more important than any form of status is a sense of fairness.

“The leitmotiv of a disaster is chaos. That doesn’t mean that you take a chaotic approach to tackling it. You need a solid dependable base to respond from.”

Change the person before changing the people

There will always be conflicts in a good team, but the key, as a team member or leader, is to pick the right fights (and sometimes, just to pick fights!). Too much harmony leads to group think (for example, the financial crisis), so sometimes people need to play out the opposing views. Sometimes at Pixar, they had people take an opposing view, to create the friction, but committing, and agreeing to, the the final decision is key.

Teams are often viewed as highly inclusive, but when do you exclude people from the team? There is often a view that you need to change the people to change the team, but there is a lot that can be done before that. Changing a person out is not the first answer, there are many other steps before that, advised Khoi. Reliability of team members is key (that leads to trust), and a sense of mutual protection (will this person protect me – have they got my back).

One of Khoi’s key tests of a team is to ask each member what the three key purposes of the team are. Divergent answers point to issues in the team. In general, the main issues in underperforming teams are: they don’t know where they are, they don’t know where they are going, and if they do, they don’t know how to get between the two.

There isn’t a problem in being in multiple teams, unless there’s a problem. People can be in multiple teams, as long as the objectives don’t conflict. A common goal is clear need in any team, and that goal might be avoiding a bad outcome – teams are at their best when the alternatives are worse.

The key ingredients

Via Twitter, Khoi was asked what the key ingredients would be if he was baking a super team pie. He said:

  • Great individuals.
  • Diversity of the team (in all senses).
  • Clear protocols about performance.
  • Building trust and cohesion.

Reflection and practice are also key ingredients. Take time out to sharpen the axe before cutting down the tree – business teams simply don’t spend enough time practicing.

Failure is also important. Every team needs to fail quickly, then recover from it, Khoi said. The shared experience of surviving tough things is key to the cohesion of a team.

Habits in groups can become culture

As a side note, it was interesting that someone who has spent much time studying teams, sees personality type as being much more of a situational thing. Teams shape behaviour and, ultimately, the culture of the organisations they are part of. There is an interplay between the business culture, team culture and the behaviour of individuals. A super team brings out the best in great people.