Thinking about team dynamics

Some of the the most crucial elements in successful product and service design are the dynamics of the team that is working together. Sadly, I hadn’t been seriously thinking about it when we were writing our forthcoming book, Subject to Change (pre-order today!), but maybe the following is fodder for the second edition?

Team dynamics has been in the back of my mind ever since we started Adaptive Path in March 2001. The seven of us who came together fit remarkably well as a team for a surprisingly long time (Mike left after a few years, and everyone else stuck around until the 6th year, with Jesse and I now the only founders remaining). During that time, I considered team dynamics was largely about a spread of skills and perspectives — successful teams are those that can bring to bear a range of skills, and where people come at problems from different points of view. Such diversity ensures a more robust and considered approach than if everyone thinks the same.

In the last few months I’ve been realizing there are other aspects of the dynamics that are essential in order for the team to work well. A petri dish of sorts was our UX Intensive workshop last November, which was the first I had attended. We get over a hundred people each day into those, and much of the workshop is spent in small group activities. The teams typically have a pretty random mix (which we encourage by getting people to move around and not work with just their colleagues), and, in these activities, three types of teams emerge, and they emerge roughly in even proportions:

  1. Those who work together perfectly fine. Nothing special, but they engage in the activity and come up with a decent result.
  2. Those whose collaboration just sings. These teams produce an amazing amount of material in a short time, and typically have a blast doing it.
  3. Those who go nowhere. These folks typically sit around, unable to get beyond talking about what they’re doing, never willing to commit to ideas or creation.

I haven’t done deeper research on these teams, but my observations indicate that the successful teams usually have two factors — a shared desire to suppress ego and truly work as a team, and some individual who steps up as a leader and helps provide the team focus or encouragement.

On other project work I’ve observed, this is crucial to success. And the only way you’re going to get there is through mutual respect. In our multidisciplinary environments, we can’t all be experts in everything. So, we have to trust the expertise and intent of others. In other words, we have to respect one another. This has been crucial in our growth at Adaptive Path — mad skills are only part of the package we need in a person to bring them on. Passion for the cause, and respect for others with that same passion, even if they have wildly different approaches and perspectives, are just as important.

I’ve been fortunate, because I’ve had a very direct hand in growing our team. In the world outside Adaptive Path, sometimes one doesn’t have that opportunity. I’ve been thinking, in particular, of teams that get a new leader, and what often transpires. It’s perhaps easiest to think about this in terms of sports teams.

I’m a fan of the Golden State Warriors basketball team. I became a fan shortly after moving to Oakland a few years ago, which was a dire time for such fandom. They hadn’t had a winning record in a decade, and the team was simply a mess. After a couple years the coach was fired, replaced by NBA legend Don Nelson. For a while, Don tried to make do with the team he had, and it didn’t go so well. Then, in a storied trade in the middle of last season, the Warriors got rid of a few non-producers, and acquired some players that many thought were too mercurial to be trusted. And what happened? They started winning. They made it to the playoffs, and even beat the heavily favored Dallas Mavericks in the first round.

Or look to football, and what Bill Belichick has been able to do with the Patriots. Because of salary caps and other equalization measures, a dynasty is supposed to be impossible in the NFL. But the Patriots are a dynasty (even though only 5 players remain from the team that won that first Super Bowl). Because it’s clear that Belichick demands that his players suppress their egos, respect one another, and work as a team.

I’ve seen this happen in user experience. A new manager was brought to lead a group, a manager who was not a designer, but (gasp!) an MBA. When she arrived, this UX group she lead was doing okay, but was no great shakes. They definitely weren’t cohering as a team — every member had their little piece of territory and didn’t seem to really get along well together. Within a year of her arrival, all of the practice leads that reported to her either left or were let go, and she replaced them with staff that understood how crucial it was to engage one another. Since then, this team has grown, both in size and stature within the organization, evolving from an execution-oriented design group to one that helps drive strategic decision-making.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, except to say that I suspect it’s remarkably difficult for a new leader to inherit a team not of their own making, and have it succeed. Teams have to be brought together under a common sense of purpose. I suspect it’s nearly impossible to assemble a team for one thing, and then try to get it to behave in a new way.

5 thoughts on “Thinking about team dynamics

  1. So this would be the book announcement then? :-) (The Amazon link is 404, btw.)

  2. Donald Trump’s The Apprentice has been a laboratory study of team dymanics for several seasons. This season’s exercise is called Celebrity Apprentice and the observing camera has exposed some shocking behavior among the team members. Importantly, your thesis regarding respectful cooperation as the key to success is often dramatically borne out.

    I also find it entertaining, most especially this week’s segment when The Donald was rendered totally flabbergasted and flabby faced when his power to intone his classic, “You’re fired!” was stripped away from him.

  3. Andrew… thanks for the pointer. Link corrected.

  4. Good points. It seems though I should wait until the second edition to consider buying the book as by your own admission you have missed out the most important aspect of successful project teams.

    My own observations support entirely what you say and a team functioning as a team is more important (usually) than any number of brilliant prima donnas. IN my experience a team that gels resolves all problems that arise becasue they seem to almost magically gel around the problem until between them it goes and then moves on to the next.

    Brilliant prima donnas may solve radically hard problems, but also in my experience are just as likely to cause them through arrogance. They also offend the rest of the team and steadily wreck the dynamics you need to complete the project successfully.

  5. I have thought about this for a while and have written a few posts on the subject. For me the main thing is the idea of a having somebody who is the hub, the instigator, the catalyst. The main person that a project can turn around and get the contributors collaborating and team working to the full. As much as it is having people working well together, the collective in my experience still needs to be driven on. I think you raise that several times here but I guess the most successful teams have somebody who everybody relates to and wants to contribute for the greater good. These ‘hubs’ have to be likable, engaging and charismatic, or it simply doesn’t work.