This is the eighth in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 7) Isolate initiative.
As I wrote earlier in this series in 2) Inhibit individuality, one of the most effective ways to build and run a high performance team is to leverage individuality. A focus on individualism begins by valuing individual talent. While sports teams and artistic ensembles go to great lengths to attract and retain top talent businesses often view people as interchangeable, easily replaceable generic workers. This perspective breeds “mirrortocracies” as people tend to hire or promote others who think and act like themselves instead of appointing those who might possess sorely needed contrasting skills or perspectives. While it might be harder to integrate diverse skills, experience and perspectives into a team, such collectives are more robust in the face of unexpected or significant challenges and the combination of complementary talents is more likely to yield synergy. One virtuoso may be able to do what hundreds of other lesser talented people cannot. Similarly one person with a different skill or perspective may provide a breakthrough or expose a previously unidentified problem. Diversity helps to avoid problematic extremes such as groupthink, a psychological phenomenon in which teams miss opportunities or make costly mistakes even to the point of overlooking evidence that they are collectively making a bad decision.
In order to truly leverage individuality organizations must decentralize leadership and give people autonomy so they can each take the initiative and lead on demand, perhaps showing the way to a new innovation or identifying a reason not to pursue a particular path. Decentralized leadership requires a minimalist approach to rules and process with the goal of eliminating bureaucracy, micromanagement and the excessive friction that plagues so many large organizations. The trick is to provide just enough structure so that a team and its projects can remain stable while giving people the freedom to excel as individuals.
This approach is clearly evident in jazz where individualism is celebrated. Jazz musicians in a band each play unique musical roles and contribute their individual improvised expressions. Even in large, highly organized ensembles such as a jazz orchestra, every musician plays an individual part whereas in a classical orchestra many parts are played by multiple musicians. Unlike the hierarchical, centralized command and control model of a conductor, leadership in jazz is constantly reassigned on demand. This happens between performances with musicians acting alternately as leaders and sidepeople on various gigs even with the same group of musicians. Leadership is also constantly changing during the performance of a musical work. In jazz, the musical rules of harmony, melody, rhythm and even form are malleable. Musicians will bend these rules or break them in order to pursue artistic innovations.
Individualism in a team can bring great rewards but when individuals become more important than the team project and team health can suffer. This can cause instability and perhaps even a complete breakdown in operations. Building a team composed of amazing virtuosi who can’t subjugate or blend their egos is a recipe for disaster. High-performance teamwork requires a tradeoff between virtuosity and collaboration. Jazz musicians are constantly improvising and innovating but they always keep things together because they put the team first. Even though leadership in jazz is constantly changing it is very rare for conflicts to occur even though the decisions to lead or to follow must often be made within fractions of a second. Frank Barrett, in his paper, Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning noted that in jazz: “It is not enough to be an individual virtuoso, one must also be able to surrender one’s virtuosity and enable others to excel.” Jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, said it best: “It’s the group sound that’s important, even when you’re playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That’s jazz.”
The importance of team unity is well understood in sports. Baseball legend, Babe Ruth, said: “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” U.S. National Basketball Association coach, Phil Jackson, in his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, noted: “Our society places such a high premium on individual achievement, it’s easy for players to get blinded by their own self-importance and lose a sense of interconnectedness, the essence of teamwork.” This is the challenge for those that build and lead teams. As Jackson noted: “This is the struggle every leader faces: how to get members of the team who are driven by the quest for individual glory to give themselves over wholeheartedly to the group effort. In other words, how to teach them selflessness.”
While achieving this delicate balance is clearly important for teams where egos may be at large, even a team with well-tempered personalities can benefit from a team-centric perspective. The goal is to function in synergy and not simply as a group of talented individuals. A failure to do this can cause injuries to team health that may never heal. The Beatles, The Supremes, Guns ‘N Roses, Pink Floyd, The Mamas and the Papas, and Van Halen are all bands that were once world-class performers but fell apart because individuals became more important than the team. When leaders entertain egos, whether it be their own or others, poor performance can be the least of their problems.