It is interesting that the moment we think of innovation, the image of Edison or Steve Jobs conjures up in our minds. No doubt, these have been some of the most extraordinary people to have lived, but less know is that even their genius was an outcome of the teams they honed. Edison, for that matter, had a battery of technicians who would keep the man fed with the latest advents from around the scientific world and experiment with him to give a shape to his ideas. Jobs, too had the ‘A-team’ that helped him roll-out insanely great products.
Countless projects, ranging from the Manhattan Project to the ISRO Chandrayaan, are all celebration of team efforts that have supported and nurtured the idea from a solitary genius. If some of the greatest creations have been an outcome of team efforts, the real question then is – what makes a winning team? Allow me to propose three salient attributes of a team that ‘ships’ ideas manifested as great products and services, also known as, a winning team.
In my experience and research, the three most important aspects of a winning team are – shared vision, complementary skillsets, and tolerance. Let’s discuss each in slight detail.
How about the following statement made by Kennedy on September 12, 1962-
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
The statement was made at a time when NASA wasn’t fully prepared to put a manned mission. Yet, the vision galvanised an organisation, and eventually millions of youth around the world, to seek the impossible.
The very essence of a team is to attempt and deliver a task that individuals on their own won’t be capable of performing. A right team puts the individuals’ energy into a collective output where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Even the apparently individualistic performance, such as in that of F-1 racing or boxing, have a hidden team working relentlessly. It is the common vision that binds the energies together. As for the leaders then, the aim is to carve out the ‘collective true-north,’ and to keep the team moving towards it.
The second aspect is that of the team diversity. A team is seldom ‘more of the same’, or the ‘economies of scale’. Rather, it is comprised of people with disparate skills, yet a coherent objective, that come together to achieve something that none of them would be capable of doing by themselves. The complementary not only fills the gaps but also allows people to learn from each other. Of course, this calls for humility to admit that one can’t be good at everything, and also the willingness to understand from another person’s perspective.
Let’s talk about one of the world’s foremost design companies- IDEO. Tim Brown, the firm’s CEO, identifies ‘T-shaped personalities’ as the backbone of its creative culture. The way Tim defines T-shaped people is-
“the vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines.”
A deep knowledge and complementary skill sets can do wonders for your team, provided that they are all aligned to the ‘true north,’ and that the people have tolerance for each other.
It is no surprise to many that some of the most gifted people typically want to be their own masters. Being self-regulated is often cited as the genesis of entrepreneurship, or even a great many scholarly achievements in the field of science. Yet, if you look at the Nobel Prize winners in recent years, mostly it is the work of the team that gets rewarded. If one has to work with people who are different, and at times, better than self, one must learn to tolerate their idiosyncrasies. This tolerance to different thought processes, situations, and ways of doing things, not only offers a fertile avenue for learning, but also unlearning. It increases the odds of serendipitous interactions and encounters, which are often known to result in landmark innovations.
“our unique strengths as a nation — our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery, our diversity, our commitment to rule of law — these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.”
The importance of tolerance clearly emerges as the cornerstone of American innovation engine.
To sum up, the winning teams are made of bright people who are galvanised to do something monumental through a shared vision, and while they bring diverse perspectives and complementary skills to the table, they are also tolerant to their differences and opinions, without compromising on the true north.