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How to build a great team
posted by admin on 21/06/06

Harmony. Cooperation. Synchronized effort. It's difficult, but it can be learned.

(FORTUNE Magazine
) - In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These four men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune.
If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

The A-Team went off the air in 1987 - still wanted by the government - but television has never produced a better blueprint for team building. The key elements of its effectiveness: a cigar-chomping master of disguise, an ace pilot, a devilishly handsome con man, a mechanic with a mohawk and an amazingly sweet van. 

Those particulars might not translate to all business settings. But clear definition of roles is a hallmark of effective collaboration. So is small team size - though four is slightly below the optimal number, 4.6. And the presence of an outside threat - like imminent recapture by government forces - likewise correlates with high team cohesion. To wit: France and England, which bloodied each other for centuries before they noticed ... 

Another universal characteristic of teams is that they're, well, universal. If you work for a living, we're guessing you interact with other humans. (Lighthouse keepers, we'll see you next time.) 

If you think this is mushy stuff, marginal to the daily battle of business, consider what is happening at Sony. CEO Howard Stringer and President Ryoji Chubachi are trying to restore the fighting spirit (and higher profits) at a company built on decentralized teams. Their theme: Sony United. 

This issue also takes you deep inside a six-man team of Marines operating in Iraq; the team that built Motorola's RAZR phone; the cutthroat yet symbiotic pack of cyclists in the Tour de France; and the world of an open-source software company. 

Each of these stories challenges a piece of conventional wisdom. If "hire great people" seems like unassailable advice, for example, then read Geoffrey Colvin's "Why Dream Teams Fail." 

The fact is, most of what you've read about teamwork is bunk. So here's a place to start: Tear down those treacly motivational posters of rowers rowing and pipers piping. Gather every recorded instance of John Madden calling someone a "team player." Cram it all into a dumpster and light the thing on fire. Then settle in to really think about what it means to be a team. 

We're certainly not against the concept of teamwork. But that's the point: All the happy-sounding twaddle obscures the actual practice of it. And teamwork is a practice. Great teamwork is an outcome; you can only create the conditions for it to flourish. Like getting rich or falling in love, you cannot simply will it to happen. 

We will go further and say: Teamwork is an individual skill. That happens to be the title of a book. Christopher Avery writes, "Becoming skilled at doing more with others may be the single most important thing you can do" to increase your value - regardless of your level of authority. 

As work is increasingly broken down into team-sized increments, Avery's argument goes, blaming a "bad team" for one's difficulties is, by definition, a personal failure, since the very notion of teamwork implies a shared responsibility. You can't control other people's behavior, but you can control your own. Which means that there is an "I" in team after all. (Especially in France, where they spell it Equipe.) 

Yet this is not the selfish "I" that got so much attention during the "me" decade; it's the affiliatory "I" that built America's churches and fought its wars. Neil Armstrong didn't get to the moon through rugged individualism; there is no such thing as a self-made astronaut. "Men work together," wrote Robert Frost, "whether they work together or apart." 

Here's both the problem and the promise of cooperation. Humans aren't hard-wired to succeed or fail at it. We can go either way. In her study of groupwork in school classrooms, the late Stanford sociologist Elizabeth Cohen found that if kids are simply put into teams and told to solve a problem, the typical result is one kid dominating and others looking totally disengaged. 

But if teachers take the time to establish norms - roles, goals, etc. - "not only will [the children] behave according to the new norms, but they will enforce rules on other group members." Perhaps to a fault. "Even very young students," Cohen wrote, "can be heard lecturing to other members of the group on how they ought to be behaving." 

Economists have long assumed that success boils down to personal incentives. We'll cooperate if it's in our self-interest, and we won't if it's not (sort of like lions). Then a team of researchers led by Linnda Caporael thought to ask: Would people cooperate without any incentives? The answer was--gasp!--yes, under the right conditions. Participants often cited "group welfare" as motivation. 

To economists, shocking. To anyone who's been part of a successful team, not shocking at all. Life's richest experiences often happen in concert with others - your garage band, your wedding, tobogganing. The boss who assumes that workers' interests are purely mercenary will end up with a group of mercenaries. 

No battery of team exercises can fix that situation - especially if they involve spanking your colleagues with yard signs. When a sales office of a home-security company, Alarm One, adopted that practice, a 53-year-old employee later sued for emotional distress. (A jury awarded her $1.2 million in April.) 

Again, let the greats show the way. During a public appearance in 2000, an A-Team cast member was asked by a fan to name his favorite co-star. "Listen," Mr. T responded. 
"That's wrong for me to pick a favorite, because I'm a team player and we were a team. 
Remember, they say"--here it comes again--"there's no 'I' in team." No, but there is a "T." And pity the fool who forgets it.

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