Four Teams

I’ve been thinking about teams recently.  There are a number of reasons why.  It would take multiple posts to explain it all, if I even decide to go there, and I probably won’t.  But a few minutes of recollection reminded me of four very different, and significant, team experiences I’ve had professionally.

Two of the teams were part of new hire training.  We did not know one another.  We did not choose one another.  We were simply grouped together and told we were a team.

This first team was, in one sense, a team, but only by definition.  In another sense, an important sense, it was not a team at all.  Let’s describe it as a “nominal” team.  This team was a failure from the very beginning because certain members pursued a strategy of intentionally embarrassing other members in front of management, making their teammates look bad in order to promote their own interests.  The result was complete failure, at least from a team perspective.  (Whether it ultimately advanced anyone’s personal career, I don’t know.)

The second team, also nominal, was also a failure.  The failure resulted from the team being factional and quarrelsome from the very beginning.  It essentially split into competing sub-teams and success was never achieved.

That leaves two other team experiences, and they were extraordinary.

The third team evolved naturally.  We knew one another.  We had worked side-by-side for many years.  We gravitated toward one another and developed friendships.  We had total trust and confidence in each other.  Each of us was competent in the complex technical things that we needed to do, but each member also had their own highly-specialized areas of expertise that made us significantly more effective working as a team – fewer problems, faster resolutions, flawless execution. I think back often about the privilege it was to work with Valerie and Johnny.

The fourth team also evolved naturally, but in a different way.  I was with a new company, returning to a technical role after five years of doing something more staff-related.  My new situation was a little different organizationally.  There were fewer of us, working from our homes, scattered across a large geography.  But, over a span of time, I again had the privilege of working with two amazing teammates, Jane and Van.  Interestingly, I think the thing I valued most about this team was the friendship and support.  It was often the peer-to-peer dialogue, the mutual understanding of the challenges and complexities we were facing, that was most valuable.  Basically, we could rant to one another as needed in order to reduce some of the stress.  But they also had great strengths in their areas of specialization.  I benefited from that while, honestly, offering them very little in return.  That team dissipated late last year and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t reflect on what great teammates they were.

Five Thoughts for the Day

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. The best leaders are “reluctant leaders.”  Steer clear of those who never want to lead and those who always want to lead.  Look for those who don’t seek leadership roles, but who naturally emerge as leaders when the situation requires it.  They tend to have that rare combination of competence and humility.

2. Life really is a zero sum game.  Beware of those who tell you otherwise.  They’re just trying to get into your head.  Not everyone gets the job, or the raise, or the promotion.  Not everyone gets a fair shake or a decent chance.  That’s life.  But maybe you can offer someone a fair shake, or a decent chance, or some measure of hope.  And maybe you should.

3. Never emphasize teamwork for the sake of teamwork.  You need a better reason than that.  If you can’t explain in 10 seconds why you need a team to do something, then you probably don’t need a team to do it.  In that case, you’re better off without a team.

4. The greatest barrier to effective communication is that no one is actually listening to you.  That’s why your first sentence needs to get people’s attention.  Remember the professor who always started the term by saying, “look at the person to your left and to your right because one of you isn’t going to be around at the end of the term”?  Make your first sentence an attention-grabber.

5. Never assign an optimist to advise you about risk factors.  Always look for the person who can tell you “why the plan is going to fail.”  It’s not a character flaw.  It’s a super-power.  Leverage it.


Building Teams of People (and Machines?)

The way I build a human team depends upon the purpose of the team.

Sometimes I need a team with skills nearly-identical to my own.  Sometimes I need a team with widely varying skills.  Sometimes I need a little bit of both – I need subject matter experts with deep knowledge in a specific area who also have other skills and insights acquired through different professional experiences.

Sometimes I like to include a totally new perspective – perhaps a new hire or trainee or novice or someone from an entirely unrelated discipline because they may see things in a way that the rest of us can’t see or ask a question that the rest of us wouldn’t ask.

Would I do the same things if I were building teams of people plus machines?  For example, would I select multiple machine-learning systems that were written by different programming teams and that implement differing algorithms in order to gain diverse machine insights?