‘Dream Teams’—The Key to Building Productive Collaboration

  • April 1, 2019

Dream Teams is the latest book by journalist Shane Snow, also the founder of Contently and a specialist in storytelling. In it, Snow looks at what causes some collaborations to end in disaster while others reap the benefits of enormous success. He seeks to answer what separates the good from the bad in terms of teamwork.

For his investigation, Snow uses historical, societal and scientific examples, which makes for a very exciting read indeed. Dream Teams is particularly topical in terms of company relationships, with Snow aiming to change our vision of people, the way they work together, and their collective success.

Diversity, prospects, and heuristics

Snow starts by dismantling the idea that a successful team is made by putting together people from same background. Indeed, one might be led to think that by following this, there will be no conflict, no disagreement, and only one way of thinking. However, it becomes clear that, in fact, this type of collaboration makes for a much more limited setup than a team made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds does.

What makes a successful team is having a diversity of perspectives (a range in people’s worldviews), as well as a diversity of heuristics—that is, the mental process that lets us make quick and intuitive judgments. Keith Yamashita is a leadership coach who has worked with Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and the former CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz, to advise them on how to manage their staff??people’s wellbeing and staff management??. Yamashita believes that recruiting a team may be likened to casting—you need to understand how each member ticks: what time of day are they most creative? How do they deal with conflict? What conditions do they work best in? The goal is to turn these differences into a source of motivation for the team to be more effective, stronger and more successful thanks to the combination of its members. So together, cognitive differences make us more productive and enable us to reach solutions that could not have been achieved alone.

Recruiting a team may be likened to casting—you need to understand how each member ticks

Snow looks at the example of the FBI. Women were long excluded from this institution due to their morphology: the belief was that they had less upper-body strength and so couldn’t compete with the criminals they had to pursue. Now we’ve finally realised that women take on problems differently and, in most cases, can resolve investigations without resorting to violence, using different analytical skills and powers of deduction from those relied on by their male colleagues. The important thing is to make sure that the differences of each team member complement each other, thereby opening up broader horizons than if each stood alone.

The paradox of conflict

Having demonstrated how diversity of origin and background can bring about a range of ideas and opinions, injecting productivity into the team, Snow then compares this idea with the paradox of conflict. Diversity is a key factor but is not enough for a team to be successful. Indeed, most of the time, this diversity creates tension and conflict that, left unaddressed, could cause the team to unravel. Alternatively, however, it could provide real opportunities.

Once again, Snow uses interesting examples to illustrate his point. In 1998, the American company Chrysler was one of the best car manufacturers in the world but was flagging somewhat in terms of vehicle production. Meanwhile, in Germany, Daimler was known for producing cars of impeccable quality but was struggling to innovate with their designs. So, in 1998, the two companies merged, believing they could become the world’s most powerful automotive group. Yet this merger proved to be an abject failure due to cultural clashes: the US teams did not see things in the same way as the German teams, but no one dared express their differences. The lack of communication and refusal to argue things out led to failure, despite their combined resources having the potential to produce the best cars in the world.

Snow also tells the story of the legendary hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. The original nine members of the group all came from different backgrounds, many with heavy baggage as past offenders. Clashes often erupted during recording and writing sessions, and some of the rappers even came to the studio with guns in their belts. RZA (Robert Diggs), the group leader and beatmaker did not want to stamp out this conflict within the group but instead tried to control and channel it into something creative. He created instrumental productions where each of the rappers had to defend their words and points of view. The group’s first album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is still considered a masterpiece today.

While diversity makes a team or group richer, it also inevitably brings different points of view, which must be expressed and addressed so that the conflict is productive and does not lead to failure. Snow uses the metaphor of the elastic band to summarise the dynamics of a group: you have to stretch the band as much as possible to shoot it far away but not so much that it breaks. In his view, this is the challenging balance that must be struck within a team in order to achieve success.

While diversity makes a team or group richer, it also inevitably brings different points of view which must be expressed and addressed so that the conflict is productive and does not lead to failure

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The paradox of success

Snow presents yet another pitfall in teamwork: the paradox of success. While the culmination of diverse prospects and heuristics may lead to initial success, team members tend to fall into a cognitive consensus that makes them less and less creative over time. This mean a successful team is often less successful next time round, as it tends to rest on its laurels and challenge itself less. Hence Snow’s recommendation of regularly introducing into the team what he calls “angelic troublemakers”: people who are less familiar with the project and who will take a fresh look at the decision-making. The key to good team dynamics is to constantly question and challenge, to keep momentum and fuel friction.

The key to good team dynamics is to constantly question and challenge, to keep momentum and fuel friction

A leading bandage brand on the US market saw a decline in sales, particularly in sales of dressings for blisters. After several attempts to redress the issue, the manager decided not to turn to consumers to gain their feedback but to introduce “angelic troublemakers” who were particularly interested in the problem. So the company brought in service men and women who travel kilometres by foot every day, as well as female strippers who have to stand on high heels for hours on end. Rather than focusing on the average consumer, to shake up its R&D (research and development) team, the company went directly to those most affected by the problem. The dressings they developed won over the public and sales went up.

In conclusion, Snow’s work shows that building a team involves a delicate balance between diversity of opinions and approaches, together with proper conflict management and constantly sparking friction to reignite the team members’ creativity. His book emphasises the importance of the “casting” stage to strike this subtle balance. Whether you’re a team member, leader, or manager, Snow’s work and expertise in storytelling give you fresh insight into how to succeed as a team—and even change the world!

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Photograph by WTTJ

Translated by Matthew Docherty

Aglaé Dancette

Fondateur, auteur, rédacteur @Word Shaper

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