Why There’s No “I” in “Team” [Book Excerpt]


Everyone knows the concept of “flow,” the supreme and most rewarding form of concentration that is popularly referred to as feeling “in the zone,” “in the groove,” and “centered.” When scientists studying “flow” expanded their research from individuals to groups, they were fascinated by some of their discoveries; despite its strong association with sports and recreation, flow is actually three times more common in the workplace than it is during leisure time.

'Flow' is actually three times more common in the workplace than it is during leisure time. Click To Tweet

The subordination of individual egos sets the stage for a crucial component of social flow: collaboration. The idea is so obvious that it’s often overlooked. Groups that work well together are more likely to experience social flow. The optimal level of collaboration is achieved when members have a basic familiarity with each other’s processes and approaches, but are not so comfortable as to become complacent, when everyone participates at equal levels, and when overall communication is effective.

Who wouldn’t want to discover the recipe for surefire success? Northwestern University sociologist Brian Uzzi took a fascinating approach to this age-old challenge by closely examining the teams behind the most successful musicals in history—as well as the biggest flops. What was it that made the difference between a Broadway blockbuster and a box-office bomb?

The answer was what many of us have long suspected: It depends on who you know. But that old adage may not mean quite what we thought it did. As it turns out, familiarity is a double-edged sword.

Uzzi established a five-point measurement he called Q to gauge the number and the nature of the connections that Broadway collaborators had. If everyone on a particular team had worked together in the past, the group had a high Q. If the group was a team of total strangers, the Q was low. What Uzzi and his partner Jarrett Spiro found is that the relationship between the creators was remarkably accurate in predicting a musical’s failure or success. Shows that received a Q score of 1.7 or less were likely to fail. But if the Q score was too high—greater than 3.2—the show was also apt to suffer, presumably because team members lacked diversity of thinking, and innovation suffered as a consequence.

All these insights would be little more than curiosities if it weren’t for one thing: What Uzzi and Spiro learned can be extended well beyond Broadway. With its stress-inducing deadlines, clashing egos, and relentless demand for the next new thing, Broadway provides a surprisingly good model for the general business climate.

On average, whether they work on the stage or the stock exchange, the most successful creative collaborations are familiar, but not too familiar. Without “new blood,” teams who have worked together for a long time tend to fall into a rut.

The most successful creative collaborations are familiar but not too familiar. Click To Tweet

As Web anthropologist Stowe Boyd explains it, “There has to be a tension, a frisson, or outright disagreement—some working through of different perspectives and backgrounds—between those who have been in the clique for a long time, and one or more outsiders.”

On the other hand, teams made up entirely of strangers may lose energy and momentum because they lack a tacit knowledge of how each other works. Creativity tends to dwindle when you have to clarify every idea or provide extensive context for every approach that you take.

Collaboration was the principal concern for a client who hired us to help them improve the productivity of their meetings. Over time, their meetings took longer and longer, yet their decision making was getting worse. Many in the group had been attending this meeting for years and were good friends both inside and outside the office. Everyone realized that something was fundamentally wrong. Most of them were bored, and yet not one employee was willing to speak up and point out what the others knew but didn’t have the guts to publicly admit: Not only were the meetings sucking the energy out of everyone, but they were also eating up the better part of a morning. And for what?

After suffering through our first meeting, we took the leader aside and recommended the following change: Each time a new agenda item was brought up, all meeting members not directly affected or who weren’t experts on the subject were asked to slide themselves and their chairs back a few feet. This left only the experts close to the table to discuss the current item. Everyone was still present in the room, of course, but the physical distance provided a powerful cue. Once the experts had reached a decision, the next agenda item was introduced and members of the team either pushed in or slid back their chairs depending on the topic. At all times the “outsiders” retained veto power, but except in extraordinary circumstances they let the experts discuss the details while they awaited their turn to step up and serve as the principal decision makers.

The group adopted the new procedure quickly and easily, and the results were almost instantly noticeable. The minor physical distance made a major difference in the team’s productivity. The time spent in the meeting was cut back drastically, and everyone felt a renewed sense of enthusiasm.

leading brainAdapted with permission from THE LEADING BRAIN: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance by Friedericke Fabritius, M.S. and Hans W. Hagemann, Ph.D. © 2017 by Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.



hans hagemannHans W. Hagemann, PhD, is Managing Partner and co-founder of the global management consultancy Munich Leadership Group (MLG) specializing in brain-based leadership. He supports leaders and teams who are facing complex business challenges. Hans is an expert in creating environments that foster high performance and ignite innovation.


Friederike FabritiusFriederike Fabritius is the head of the Practice Group Neuroleadership at the Munich Leadership Group. As an executive coach and leadership specialist, she has extensive expertise working with top executives from multinational corporations. Friederike is a neuroscientist by education and a sought-after keynote speaker. 



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