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Smarty Pants Book Club: Building the perfect team

March 13, 2016

Smarty Pants Book Club directed its attention toward teams for the first meeting of 2016.

We were simultaneously surprised and not surprised at all to find that it is pretty easy to identify ways that teams go wrong, but more difficult to pinpoint the things that make a successful team excel.

Peopleware by Tom DeMarco is a canonical book in the field of software development. The author argues that project success and failure is rarely, if ever, the result of bad technological decisions or implementations but rather is rooted in sociological factors. Successful teams have a quality of being “gelled,” but it is incredibly difficult to identify what make a team gel. It is easier to see things that cause teams to fail and DeMarco spends much of the book describing various ways to commit “teamicide.” Micromanagement, defensive management and artificial deadlines are all great ways to squash a team’s progress and productivity.

In Peopleware, DeMarco rejects popular analogies that compare workplace teams to sports teams. He cautions that it is too easy to prioritize individual rewards and incentives over teamwork. A great work team is more like a choir or an orchestra where one sub-par member can drag down the performance of the whole. Book club members who are also coaches or group leaders outside of work agreed that teams who share an intrinsic motivation for success have the highest probability of reaching their goals.

A great work team is more like a choir or an orchestra where one sub-par member can drag down the performance of the whole.

Several book club members read Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. In this book, Lencioni uses a fictional executive team working through their internal issues as a storytelling tool. The team, led by their new CEO, addresses five dysfunctions and associated individual motivations that feed the dysfunction. The base of Lencioni’s dysfunction pyramid is absence of trust, followed by fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results.

We talked a lot about how conflict management is one of the hardest types of dysfunction to handle. Many of us self-identified as people who avoid conflict whenever possible and feel uncomfortable when others seem to seek it out. The Grove Facilitation Model is one way to help soothe fears of conflict. It is a “process of leading groups toward agreed-upon objectives in a manner that encourages participation, ownership, and creativity from all involved.” By establishing team expectations and assigning roles and responsibilities, unhealthy conflict is less likely to be an issue. Healthy conflict still has room to pop up, but this type of conflict feels less intimidating to those who struggle with interpersonal disagreements.

Zeroes by Chuck Wendig is a work of fiction that tells the story of a group of hackers with different motivations and work styles. The group is put together by a secretive government agency that assigns them intelligence work in exchange for staying out of prison. This team quickly discovers that the agency is in fact the bad guy, and they must work together in order to escape. Each of them struggle with the initial impulse to protect themselves at the expense of the group. But they quickly realize that the can only survive together.

Ideas and theories about teamwork seem to pop up everywhere, from science fiction novels to New York Times Magazine articles. What we see over and over, in work and non-work contexts, is that groups who communicate well and have empathy for one another are the happiest and highest functioning. Duhigg’s article reminds us that “when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized. “

— Written by Leah Ujda