Teamwork 1 - The Myth of Dream Teams
As promised, here is the first in a series of articles on teamwork from the June 12, 2006 issue of Fortune magazine. I have condensed it some (you can read the entire article HERE).
In what universe is it even conceivable that the United States could fail to reach the semifinals of something called the World Baseball Classic? Not only fail to win, but could field a team that included Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Johnny Damon and then lose games to Mexico, South Korea, and - wait for it -Canada? Yet it happened this year.
How could a movie starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Julia Roberts, directed by Steven Soderbergh, get tepid reviews and gross less worldwide than the star-free My Big Fat Greek Wedding? That movie was Ocean's Twelve.
And how could a FORTUNE 500 company run by a brilliant former McKinsey consultant, paying fat salaries to graduates of America's elite business schools, dissolve into fraud and bankruptcy? It happened at Enron. If someone tells you you're being recruited onto a dream team, maybe you should run. In our team-obsessed age, the concept of the dream team has become irresistible. But it's brutally clear that they often blow up. Why? Because they're not teams. They're just bunches of people.
The most important lesson about team performance is that the basic theory of the dream team is wrong. You cannot assemble a group of stars and then sit back to watch them conquer the world. You can't even count on them to avoid embarrassment. The 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team consisted entirely of NBA stars; it finished third and lost to Lithuania.
By contrast, the 1980 hockey team that beat the Soviets at the Lake Placid Olympics was built explicitly on anti-dream-team principles. Coach Herb Brooks, who died in 2003, based his picks on personal chemistry. In the story's movie version, Miracle, Brooks' assistant looks at the roster and objects that many of the country's greatest college players were left out (professionals were not eligible to play then). To which Brooks responds with this essential anti-dream-team philosophy: "I'm not lookin' for the best players, Craig. I'm lookin' for the right players."
To see why dream teams so often disappoint, let's consider the most common paths to failure.
1. Signing too many all-stars.
Chemistry and culture are key. Henry Ford II successfully brought in the Whiz Kids, a pre-assembled team of U.S. Army managerial stars that included Tex Thornton, Robert McNamara, and others, when he sensed that Ford needed a revolution after World War II. Young and iconoclastic, they had a record of working together effectively, and they did well at Ford, helping it to cash in on the postwar boom. But 50 years later when CEO Jacques Nasser correctly decided that Ford (Research) needed another revolution, he stuck with the old-guard team already in place. Like most old guards, they weren't ready for a real revolution, and when push came to shove, Nasser got ejected. More seriously for Ford, the revolution didn't happen.
For a notably successful method of choosing team members, look at Worthington Industries (Research), the Ohio-based steel processor. When an employee is hired to join a plant-floor team, he works for a 90-day probationary period, after which the team votes to determine whether he can stay. The system works because much of the team's pay is based on performance, so members are clear-eyed and unsparing in evaluating a new candidate's contribution. Worthington's CEO, John McConnell, could be talking about teams at any level when he says, "Give us people who are dedicated to making the team work, as opposed to a bunch of talented people with big egos, and we'll win every time."
2. Failing to build a culture of trust.
Trust is the most fundamental element of a winning team. If people think their teammates are lying, withholding information, plotting to knife them, or just incompetent, nothing valuable will get done. The team doesn't create synergy. It creates "dysergy" - two plus two equals three, with luck.
In fact, trust is so fragile and so laboriously created that it may never extend very far in a top-level team. "Building a really high-performing executive team at the highest level is a mirage," says a management consultant who doesn't want to be quoted because this particular message is a downer. "When such teams do exist, they'll consist mostly of two people, maybe three." It's just too hard to build trust more extensively at the top level, where everyone is supposedly a star.
3. Tolerating competing agendas.
The challenge is to keep the inevitable personal agendas from becoming destructive. That's part of the leader's job. For example, Ameritech in the '90s had an all-star team of top executives that included Richard Notebaert, future CEO of Ameritech, Tellabs, and Qwest, and Richard Brown, future CEO of Cable & Wireless and EDS. Michigan business school professor Noel Tichy, who was advising the company on leadership development at the time, recalls that CEO Bill Weiss told the team bluntly every week that if he caught anybody trying to undermine the others, the guilty party would be fired. It worked.
4. Letting conflicts fester.
Col. Stas Preczewski, coach of the Army crew at West Point a few years ago, faced a baffling problem. Through extensive testing, he had developed objective criteria to rank his rowers. He then put the eight best - his dream team - in the varsity boat and the eight others in the junior varsity boat. The problem: The JV beat the varsity two-thirds of the time. The situation, as explained in a Harvard Business School case, was that the varsity was full of resentment over who was contributing most, while the JV, feeling they had nothing to lose, supported one another happily.
One day Preczewski lined up the varsity crew in four pairs. He told them they were to wrestle - no punching - for 90 seconds. There were no clear winners: Each man was discovering that his opponent was just as strong and determined as he was. Preczewski then had them change opponents and wrestle again. By the third round they were choosing their own opponents - "One guy would point at another and say, 'You!'" Preczewski says. Finally, one of the rowers started laughing, and they all piled into a general brawl. Eventually someone said, "Coach, can we go row now?" From then on, the varsity boat flew.
You probably can't order members of an executive team to wrestle, tempting though it may be. But bringing tensions out into the open and then resolving them is one of the team leader's most important jobs.
5. Hiding from the real issues.
"Put the fish on the table," says George Kohlrieser, a professor at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland. You've got to go through the "smelly, bloody process of cleaning it," but the reward is "a great fish dinner at the end of the day." Most people don't want to be the one who puts the proverbial fish on the table. "There's a veneer of politeness," says consultant David Nadler, "or unspoken reciprocity - we won't raise our differences in front of the boss." Consultant Ram Charan describes a $12 billion division of ABB that was headed for bankruptcy, in part because of "its culture of polite restraint. People didn't express their honest feelings" about the most important issues. The unit's leader turned it around by insisting that team members say what was on their minds.
In business, dream teams are usually part of some rescue fantasy, not the real world. "Be prepared to have an imperfect set," says Charan. "Then you've got to devote your energy to getting them to synchronize. It's very time consuming. It taxes your patience." It's life.
To avoid seducing yourself into thinking all your problems might be vaporized by assembling a dream team, resolve now to accept this fact: There was only one Dream Team, and that was the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing - it was a one-time event. (And remember, Bird and Magic, the veteran co-captains, both had reputations as team players.) For the rest of us, putting together a few talented people who will work honestly and rigorously for something greater than themselves - that's more than enough of a dream.