When they operate well, teams provide companies with significant competitive advantage, which is why the use of teams and collaborative work has risen by more than 50% over the past 20 years1. The problem is that leading teams so that they operate well demands a level of creativity and commitment that’s often underestimated. In fact, given the level of difficulty, there are many instances where individuals working independently would actually be more efficient and effective than teams2. In the April 2017 article “Why Your Teamwork Isn’t Working,” the professional services firm Scoro reports that teamwork results on average in a 40% drop in productivity and that 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional3. In Extreme Teams, management consultant Robert Bruce Shaw sets out to investigate what it is about the high performing teams at seven of the world’s most cutting-edge companies – Pixar, Netflix, Airbnb, Whole Foods, Zappos, Patagonia, and Alibaba – that enables them to rise above the difficulties that plague other teams around the world. After studying these companies, Shaw reports that at the heart of each of these high performing teams lies multiple paradoxes.
Fostering shared obsession: a blessing and a cursing
Obsession comes with a risk of tunnel vision. It can push you and your teams to single-mindedly pursue the wrong direction(s), wasting a lot of time, energy, and resources in the process. This is a significant risk, particularly within the context of highly competitive market environments. And yet, in each of the seven firms profiled in Shaw’s book, obsession is an individual trait of its leaders as well as a shared trait among the teams themselves. “The downside of obsessive behavior is the price to pay for doing something extraordinary,” Shaw concludes. Being obsessed with your work, as Shaw defines it, means that you enjoy it, even love it, and find meaning in it. He compares his idea of being obsessed to Angela Duckworth’s idea of grit, or “the passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.”4 While Duckworth’s research focuses on the importance of grit, or to use Shaw’s term obsession, to individual success, this trait arguably becomes even more important in the context of teamwork, given the problems of motivation that collaboration so often creates. Shaw reports that high performing teams exhibit obsession in “three, frequently interconnected forms”: 1) Obsession with the work itself and resulting product; 2) Obsession with building a great company; 3) Obsession with the impact of their work on the world at large – on “making a dent in the universe.”
Providing well-defined priorities AND creative freedom
Teams need clarity on their key strategic priorities. At Netflix, context has become a code word for the minimum level of shared understanding needed for teams to achieve their objectives. While there seems to be a potential contradiction between alignment and creative freedom, at Netflix (as well as at the other seven companies profiled by Shaw, see box “Democratic discipline at Whole Foods”), the one is viewed as supporting the other. “Netflix, in particular, believes that context setting is necessary to sustain what it deems essential to its success – namely, a freedom and responsibility culture,” Shaw explains.