Team Genius

"Teams compose a large part of our private and public lives. We depend on them for both our success and our happiness."

- Team Genius, page xiv

In Team Genius, authors Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone focus on giving their readers a clear understanding that work gets done by informal teams and have set out to pull together an extremely comprehensive approach to explaining and evidencing why this is the case. They provide a wealth of real-life examples to support their arguments ranging from George Washington to Gilbert and Sullivan. Based on research and their own extensive experience, the authors also provide their readers with the insights into how to create their own Team Genius.

I was astonished at how much research, evidence and guidance the authors have managed to pack into their book. They highlight the challenges to teams in today’s world, namely the pace of change, including technological change, demographic shifts, the experience of the upcoming generation of future leaders, and globalization more generally.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Team Diagnosis is Essential—Ask 20 Questions

"Every one of those teams is currently at some point in its life cycle. Some of these teams are clearly dysfunctional; others are suboptimal in their performance; and still others are approaching the end of their usefulness. Even great teams are always being challenged to do all that they are capable of doing."
- Team Genius, page xvii

The authors recommend twenty questions you should ask about teams you manage and are a member of:

Questions you should always ask:

  1. Is your organization, and the teams that compose it, up to the challenges they face in a hyper competitive global economy?
  2. If not, is there some way to accelerate your understanding of teams?
  3. Can you apply that new knowledge in a way that lets you build teams both fast and appropriately for the ever changing challenges that face you?
  4. Can you find the right team at the right moment?
  5. Can you identify the right moment when one team needs to be dissolved to create another, perhaps in a very different form?

Questions about your own skills in creating and managing teams:

  1. If the fate of your organization depended on it, could you identify those great teams?
  2. Do you know how to staff a team for a specific task?
  3. If you were assigned the task of reorganizing the subpar teams to ensure their top performance, would you know how to do it?
  4. Would you even know where to start?
  5. By the same token, if you were to look at the top-performing teams in your company- in management, manufacturing, R&D, sales- would you be able to identify which ones were reaching the end of their life span?
  6. Would you have the courage to shut them down?
  7. Would you know how to handle that retirement without creating acrimony and killing morale among some of your most talented employees?
  8. Would you know how to recompose a replacement team to be just as effective and without losing any time?

Questions about your organization’s capabilities:

  1. Can your company’s teams stay ahead of the changes affecting your industry and customers?
  2. Are your teams able to anticipate and respond to sudden disruptions in technology, economics and customer behavior?
  3. Are your teams leveraging globalism and multicultural values as strengths?
  4. Is mobile technology helping or hurting your team’s performance? How are you performing in this area relative to your competition?
  5. Are your team’s missions and values being supported or undercut by social media?
  6. Do you have the right people in the right positions in the right teams?
  7. Are your teams the right size for the job?

Asking these questions will help you define where your team is in it’s life cycle, and ultimately work more effectively.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Teams are Dynamic

"Humans constantly form teams - usually first as pairs that coalesce into larger groupings—but, in emergencies, we have been known to form coordinating, effective, and trusting pairs in seconds… the astonishing range of types of teams, beginning with pairs, shows the universality and flexibility of this phenomenon in daily life."
- Team Genius, page 113

The authors provide great advice for evaluating the success of teams and how to manage those that appear either healthy or unhealthy. Though I am aware of other descriptions of the team life cycle, I must admit I loved the way Karlgaard and Malone describe them, as it made more sense to me in today’s environment. They are briefly summarized below:

Formation: Individuals band together, establish relationships whilst defining goals and delegating the right tasks to the right members.

Establishment: Rules, metrics, milestones and communication methods are identified as work starts on the task. Norms and team culture are established.

Operational: Focus shifts from structure to working on task content.

Functional This involves resetting milestones and deadlines, coping with member personalities, idiosyncrasies and strengths and weaknesses; external forces may put further stress and confusion on the team whose still immature interpersonal relationships may not yet be strong enough to handle them.

Cultural: Events become the legends and experiences that define team culture.

Sustainable: Departure and arrival ceremonies occur to maintain the team’s sustainability.

Maturation and Consolidation: Maturity brings together and consolidates disparate operations toward a final goal. Consolidation is accomplished with a robust infrastructure, clearly established lines of communication and rules of behaviour.

Completion: Work starts on packaging the results for senior management and/or investors.

End: Successful teams are shut down or transformed into a new team with a new task.

Aftermath: The period following the retirement of a team.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Teams are Human Nature

"At no point in the development of civilization, and across six millennia, have small, fundamental teams ever been abandoned as unnecessary or obsolete. Rather, they remain essential building blocks in the structure of ever larger institutions."
- Team Genius, page 18

The human drive to form teams is a survival mechanism for individuals: evidence shows that solitary individuals have shorter life spans than their more social counterparts. Teamwork goes back to the dawn of time, recent studies have confirmed that working together beyond kin with snap decisions results in more cooperation. The longer we think about a decision the more selfish we are inclined to be. Working in a team climate impacts our mammalian brain and levels of oxytocin where social norms can shape behavior with reduced requirement for rules and regulations to enforce it and can also make us less stressed and ultimately happier. By embracing teams as an expression of our natural state, we can get more done, and create better solutions than we could working on our own.

A new science of teams is critical if we are to be ready for the continuing changes and advances we are likely to witness. Teams must be capable of surviving on their own and be designed to work with, not against, team members’ individual approaches to work. Teams must be given the requisite support to reach their full potential. Team size and composition is critical for achieving strategic goals. The authors discuss the importance of cognitive diversity in creating successful teams and other aspects of creating team genius. The reader is under no illusion that managing teams is easy or straightforward, nor is it always successful. Great advice and guidance is provided on how to handle this. I encourage individuals currently leading or planning to lead teams read this book for their own takeaways and learnings.

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Jane Bushby

ABOUT Jane Bushby

Jane is passionate about helping individuals be happy and productive at work. She has a successful track record in leading small and large scale change, training and coaching teams and individuals...
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