Teams are great. And they also suck.

Like most of us, you probably plan, work, solve problems, make decisions, and review progress in some sort of formal or informal team. When it is firing on all cylinders, nothing is better. But when the engine is misfiring, things grind to a halt, the highway gets backed up and tempers flare.

So, knowing how teams function – and helping them function better – is vital to your success.


“If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together“

-African proverb


Most of the production, innovation and efficiency that the modern organization enjoys is the result of teams. Org charts break organizations down into divisions or departments with varying degrees of interdependence, but it’s the teams that get things done and execute your strategy. Studies show that people working in groups achieve better results. They innovate faster, see more mistakes, find better solutions. They also report higher job satisfaction and greater employee engagement.

But it’s also where the most conflict lies. For every efficient team that is a joy to work with, there seems to be another that is rife with interpersonal frictions, unclear strategic goals and/or individuals who are ill-suited to their roles.


What makes your team not suck?

In 2012 Google sat down to study what makes an effective team. They code-named the initiative Project Aristotle and began to apply their ability to gather and analyze massive amounts of data to what makes an effective team. They kept their scope broad and looked for factors that surfaced for different kinds of teams across the entire organization. They also looked for factors that impacted multiple outcome metrics and could be proved with consistent, robust statistical significance.

The results were at once insightful and unsurprising.

The most effective teams, it turns out, are not those that are rigidly structured, plan carefully, stick to the agenda and are ruled by a strong leader. Instead, it’s the teams where individuals interrupt one another, derail the agenda, go off-script, explore tangents. Amid that messy working relationship, they’re also pretty good at listening to one another, intuiting how others are feeling and making a space for others to share.

In other words, the best teams are like a bunch of kids. Which isn’t a bad thing at all.


Teams that don’t suck are like a bunch of kids

Peter Skillman, the designer and engineer who worked on the breakthrough product the PalmPilot, ran a contest with teams of business school students and groups of kindergartners.

The task was simple: build the tallest structure you can out of twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of transparent tape, one yard of string and one standard-size marshmallow. The marshmallow had to end up on top.

The result? The kindergartners beat the business school students hands down. Every. Single. Time.

Why? Largely because the business school students wasted most of their time planning. They examined the materials, discussed options, voted on choices, chose which idea to proceed with and allowed the person with the best idea to assign tasks.

But, despite appearances, that’s not really what they were doing.

All of that polite behaviour was a mask for what psychologists call “status management”. They were discerning who was in charge of the group, where they fit within the hierarchy and what that meant to their sense of psychological safety.

Photo by Peter Skillman design.


Meanwhile, the kindergartners just tried a bunch of stuff until they hit on something that worked. They interrupted one another, offered suggestions, spoke in short bursts, stood shoulder to shoulder and helped one another with their ideas.

But don’t get the idea that this was an unhappy mess. Overall, each kindergartener had roughly the same amount of input and ownership over the project. You only need to go to Skillman’s website to see photos of happy kindergarteners proudly showing off their creations.



How to get your team to “act like a bunch of kids” (a.k.a. working together effectively)

Teams are the molecular level of your organization. Purpose defines the impact you’re having on the customer and your society. Strategy will get you there. But, as management guru Peter Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

Let’s face it, a culture often snacks on the remains for lunch and dinner too. And the members of your team are the ones sitting around the table with their knives and forks.

So how do you build the kind of highly functional team that executes your strategy instead of devouring it?


Here are eight practical tools drawn from the SHIFT deck that can help you engage and motivate your team members, transforming them into a cohesive whole:

  1. Trust: Team members who trust their leaders are demonstratively more productive. They collaborate more efficiently, are more effective problem solvers, participate more readily in brainstorming activities, and have more energy at work. They also experience significantly less chronic stress in the workplace, meaning they are generally healthier and take fewer sick days.
  2. Recognition: When excellence is recognized, top performers have a forum for sharing best practices so others can learn from them. Recognition is a major contributor to building teams because it bonds team members together, shows that the work they’ve done contributes to the company’s goals, and demonstrates that the team leader cares about them and their work.
  3. Challenge: Challenge and stress aren’t always bad things when delivered in reasonable doses. A team that strives for a goal that’s just out of reach and succeeds will learn that they can go beyond their perceived limitations. This is the same challenge that bonds warriors when they return from battle or protesters when they turn their attention to the next cause.
  4. Relationships: Building healthy relationships is one of the most important factors in creating engaged and motivated employees. Without social bonds between team members, work can become lifeless, teams can disintegrate, and turnover can increase. Conversely, strengthening relationships motivates teams and increases their effectiveness.
  5. Vulnerability: Nothing builds a team like showing vulnerability. It reveals us as human, humble, and accessible. However, showing vulnerability to colleagues can be difficult. Asking for help, far from being a sign of weakness, is a sign of self-awareness, humility, and maturity.
  6. Transparency: One of the greatest contributors to building a team is a commitment to transparency. It increases alignment, drives engagement, and leads to better solutions. When it comes to transparency, great leaders lead by example.
  7. Candid Dialogue: The work that needs to get done in a workplace cannot be achieved without safety, openness, and non-judgement. If the team doesn’t have all the facts and opinions on the table so they can be debated openly, they can’t make informed decisions. In a workplace that values candid dialogue, people recognize that holding back their full participation is not welcomed. Instead, they feel excited and encouraged to share potentially wrong, risky, sensitive or creative ideas without reprisal.
  8. Play: Play is the fertilizer for brain growth. Encouraging play, zest, and delight in our work results in increased performance. It strengthens social and emotional connections. Play can also drive home abstract concepts and complex issues that may otherwise be difficult to comprehend.

Whether you are looking to salvage a toxic culture or reinforce existing traits within an already high-functioning workplace, you’ll find these elements all contribute to building high-functioning teams.


Too many cooks in the kitchen also sucks

One word of caution: the positive dynamic of teams that Skillman discovered only works up to a certain point.

According to W. L. Gore and Associates, the makers of Gore-Tex, that point is 150 people. They discovered through trial and error that if more than 150 employees were working together in one building, they started to encounter a host of social problems. Communication became more challenging, employees no longer received the one-on-one feedback they craved and decisions became more difficult as the hierarchy grew.

So Gore-Tex erected buildings could only accommodate 150 employees. They ensured there were only 150 parking spaces. When they were filled, the company would build another 150-employee building usually only a short distance away. Amazon followed suit, with Jeff Bezos’ now-famous rule that every internal team should be small enough to be fed by two pizzas.

This is not just another ham-fisted idea floated by weirdo tech gurus. It’s science.

Specifically, its evolutionary psychology.


There is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom humans can maintain meaningful and stable social relationships


Oxford professor Robin Dunbar observed that the average size of a hunter-gatherer tribe is 150. The average size of communities in medieval England? About 150. To this day, Hutterite communities (fundamentalist Christians who live a communal life) deliberately split their communities when they exceed 150 individuals. Dunbar theorized that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom humans can maintain meaningful and stable social relationships. “Putting it another way,” Dunbar explained cheekily “it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”.

Dunbar also cited two more numbers: 5 and 10. He observed that most people reserve an inner core of about 5 ‘shoulders to cry on” to whom we devote about 40 percent of our available social time.  There are another 10 more people who are socially important to us and who account for 20 percent of our time. So, all in all, we devote about two-thirds of our time to just 15 people.

Choose wisely.