The future of work is deeply tied to the ties that bind great teams inside the workplace. Until robot overlords upend the world, we humans will be performing most office tasks in small and large teams which may range from the utterly dysfunctional to the sublime. What separates these cohorts?
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Let’s call him Joe.
He’s an average guy, you know him.
He sits around in meetings and plays one of three roles: the shirker, the jerk, the doomsday prophet.
This Joe, let loose in office huddles, beats down productivity and morale by several notches by sending out one clear signal: We are not safe here, we don’t belong.
How insidious is Joe the jerk or Joe the shirker? Are there some managers who are able to work around this guy? If yes, how does that particular manager do it and do these teams increase firm productivity?
As wave upon wave of research emerges on the rise of automation, there is an equally compelling body of work pushing the ideas of how powerful teams are built and how they thrive.
This ties deeply to our digital future and answers the question that surrounds us at gabfests: What will technology do to us?
The answers may well be found in the science of high performance: how can we, the living, team up in ways that remain unbeatable.
These are processes hard coded into the world’s extraordinary success stories: Germany’s methodical supremacy over the romance of Brazilian artistry in the 2014 football world cup, the brilliance of Navy SEAL Team Six, the world’s most respected surgery wards, even protest movements that changed the history of nations.
“Words are noise, group performance depends on behaviour that communicates one powerful, overarching idea: We are safe and connected,” writes Daniel Coyle in The Culture Code — the secrets of highly successful groups.
Teams have become not just the basic superstructure of organisations but fashionable lingo for recruiting and retaining people — “we want team players.”
Team projects have increased weightage in post-graduate coursework, offshore-onsite combinations have been turned on their head in the last decade. Despite being unwieldy and chaotic, these “team players” are still held to performance parameters that are simply impossible if you must suffer fools in the process.
“The world is not run by consensus but by stubborn minorities imposing their tastes and ethics on others,” writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of the foremost thinkers of our time.
Why, closer home, even the circus in Karnataka politics mirrors this. What some may laugh off as “resort politics” is one team’s method of cocooning against poachers — the feeling of safety and power inherent in even razor thin margins of error. Politics everywhere has moved on from landslide wins to single digit formulas and “stubborn minorities”.
The combination of two or more people whose mix of human skills, processes and motivations collide with external forces is both the definition of team power and an anthem for our common digital future.
Of course it’s not all good. Badly managed teams and ‘death by meetings’ are hotbeds of wasted time and money resources which bleed into the P/L and show up as ballooning general administration costs — needless video conferencing, phone bills, time cost, pizzas, and so on.
In contrast are killer teams whose processes are intimately connected. This isn’t just good for morale, it sustains business and helps fend off competitive threats.
Because, in the age of free and instant platforms, competitors are always ready and willing to copy. They (naively) think that copying the end product is a good enough method but this maneuvre will typically fail because great companies are able to put out winning products not (only) because of the design and functionality of the end product but because of processes that bind people together to work like an orchestra, in perfect coordination.
Both cacophony and melody are created from wrong and right combination of the same set of seven universal notes. Ditto for the secrets of great teams that thrive.
Hard coding team purpose sounds great but is both difficult and urgent for managers dealing with increasingly diverse groups across cultures and geographies.
Yet, socially diverse groups have been found to consistently outperform more homogenous teams that tend to evaluate themselves more positively, say Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton — both co-founders of the global training firm The Culture Works.
Thinking of diverse groups in terms of heterogeneous culture is the more limited definition but when diverse groups (are allowed to) pool brainpower into the core (company), the results are quite sensational.
Coyle relates a story from back in the early 2000s when Google’s cofounder Larry Page stuck a note in the office kitchen which was all of three words: “These Ads Suck.”
This was when Google was trying to match search terms to ads for its AdWords engine. Page was upset because searches for say, a Kawasaki H1B bike were throwing up ads on H1B visas — “
recisely the kind of thing that could doom a project.”
A young, skinny engineer Jeff Dean ambled into the kitchen for a coffee and saw Page’s note. It wasn’t his area in Google right then but he had worked on a similar problem in an earlier job. Without worrying too much about protocol and informing folks that he was going to try and fix it, he worked round the clock for the next three days and sent out an email when he was done early Monday morning around 5 a.m. Within a year, Google profits went from $6 billion to $99 billion.
“Google was a hothouse of belonging cues,” says Coyle, unlike other competitors at the time which were full of stuffy bureaucrats. “Google didn’t win because of tech smarts, it won because it consistently made employees feel safer.”
Jeff Dean who solved the AdWords problem did not have to worry too much about which senior would berate or humiliate him for breaking protocol and whether he may be stopped midway through a solution.
The other extreme of this model is central planning and tight controls, which could never work, according to economist Friedrich Hayek. Hayek’s theory on the use of society’s knowledge is enjoying a resurgence as new research emerges on the efficacy and limits of crowd based solutions.
“We can’t tell all of what we know, what we have, what we want or what we value. As a result the giant optimising algorithm of any central planning core could never have the data it truly needed so it would do bizarre and counterproductive things,” say Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, best selling authors and professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Many would balk at the idea of emergent power structures at office or in the economy as the default system but pushback comes from market successes like Google AdWords and the Linux operating system which has a nearly identical storyline.
One attribute of executing this kind of geeky leadership successfully is “noncredentialism”, say McAfee and Brynjolfsson. If you allow people to contribute to an effort only if they have the right credentials (job title, political alignment and so on), you might as well stick to status quo. Noncredentialism is the culture that allowed Jeff Dean to fix Google’s AdWords problem, it’s what created the world’s most popular operating system — Linux.
It circles back to Joe the spoiler and the antithesis of that culture — where groups feel safe for sustained periods, not on edge every day.
So how does all this apply to the most coveted generation of workers — the millennials?
That’s up next.
Coyle, Daniel; The Culture Code.
Gostick, Adrian and Elton, Chester; The Best Team Wins.
Hayek, Friedrich; The use of knowledge in society; American Economic Review.
McAfee, Andrew and Brynjolfsson, Erik; Machine, Platform, Crowd.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas; Skin in the Game.
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Nikhila Natarajan is Senior Programme Manager for Media and Digital Content with ORF America. Her work focuses on the future of jobs current research in ...Read More +