Walking the Tightrope to Build Great Teams

A tale of two companies…

At one Silicon Valley high tech company, rules were very clear. From the dress code to coding style to when, and under what circumstances, people were allowed to take vacation, everything was defined. Personal issues were not important. The mantra was simple: “We’re a team!” Each team member was routinely expected to be totally committed to the company and put personal needs a distant second. It was, perhaps, a bit surreal, sort of like a Twilight Zone episode in which people found themselves transported from the mid-1990’s to the mid-1950’s.

One day, the entire engineering team quit en masse. Others soon followed. The rest of the story is a familiar one.

At a second high tech company, things were a little different. For one thing, there was a great deal more freedom: among other things, no dress code and no one had to request vacation weeks or months ahead of time. While the company had various teams organized by functional need, each one was very much the master of its domain. The CEO actively encouraged individual performance and responsibility; indeed, performance reviews were based entirely on each individual’s contribution to the team. The best performers, quite naturally, received the largest shares of the pie.

While the employees of this company did not quit en masse, the company found it oddly difficult to get anything done. Team leads were constantly arguing with one another about the best way to do things. In many cases, the arguments didn’t end until the CEO made a decision. Many senior managers spent more time jockeying for position and power than actually trying to get products out the door. This was, apparently, quite fine from the perspective of the CEO, who viewed competition as a healthy way to stimulate individual excellence. In a way, it did work: he did get individual excellence. Unfortunately, that individual excellence did not translate into team and corporate-wide excellence. Microsoft has learned this lesson.

While the argument might be made that the fundamental problem was in how excellence was defined, that is really only a small piece of the puzzle. Yes, it is certainly true that the standards for evaluation needed to be different than they were, but that would not have solved the problem.

The first company celebrated teams: everything was about the group and nothing was about the individual. The assumption was that if you subordinate the individual to the team, the team will be stronger. The second company focused on the individual: the assumption was that if you put enough excellent people together and encourage self-sufficiency, you’ll get excellent results. Both assumptions, when taken individually, are fundamentally flawed. They work, but not well enough. Maximum team and individual performance occurs only when both assumptions are combined. One must simultaneously build the team and encourage independence.

The first, and most important, piece of building a team is to create a sense of community or affiliation among all members of the company. Unless everyone feels that they’re all working together, you’ll find you have competition at exactly the moment you most need cooperation. Affiliation can be built in a number of ways: it helps to have a vivid vision of the company and what it’s trying to do. Microsoft’s famous “PC on every desktop,” and Google’s “To organize the world’s information,” are two classic examples. Beyond that, however, it pays to build a sense of affiliation among team members. Look for areas of common interest or find ways of creating them. Visible symbols, like company logo wear, can certainly help, but activities of mutual interest outside the work itself are even better. Each person doesn’t have to be involved in each activity; rather, it’s important to have enough going on that people feel connected to one another. Provide the freedom for opportunities to arise: in one company, a group of employees discovered they had a shared passion for collecting wine.

At the same time, look for opportunities to give people as much autonomy as possible. If you don’t have to regulate something, don’t. How people work, when they work, where they work, the freedom they have to decorate their office space, and so forth, are all possible areas of autonomy, something Google does quite well, at least if the articles in the New York Times are accurate. When you provide autonomy, you demonstrate trust. One of the best ways to get people to live up to your expectations is to show that you trust them.
If people deviate from the standards and norms of your company, stop and look before you say anything. Is what they are doing working? Are they producing results? If so, perhaps you can find a way to tolerate that deviation. If it’s not working, then it’s time to rein the person in.

Of course, finding the right balance isn’t easy. It takes a great deal of confidence and a willingness to experiment. It often feels safer to just tell everyone to go off and produce or try to get everyone to march in lockstep. True safety and success comes from both independence and affiliation, not from either one alone. The strength of the individual is the team, and the strength of the team is the individual.