Why some teams flop, while other teams rock!


Importance of Teams

No other single factor has as much predictive power of the success or failure of your projects and programs than the health of your teams. I doubt that anyone will deny the importance of teams. Today more and more work is being performed by teams, both in operations and in new service/product development. But what exactly is a team? What distinguishes great teams? Is it possible to create great teams, or do they just happen when you are lucky? This paper will explore these concepts and help you with specific suggestions to transform your team into a team that rocks.

Teams are very different from groups of people. Consider these:

• A classroom   • Players on a football team
• People on a bus versus • Members of a mitdtary squad
• Customers at a coffee shop   • Volunteers at a homeless shelter

What is the difference between these lists? Both are lists of people. The people in both lists have different personalities, skills, families, ethnicities, and histories. What makes one a team and the other a group? I suggest that teams exhibit following attributes:

  • A sense of safety;
  • A common goal;
  • Necessary interdependence.

Isn't it interesting that if you take the groups of people listed above, and you apply three characteristics—safety, a common goal, and necessary interdependence—you suddenly have the start of a team.

Attributes of Teams that Rock

Have you ever made rock candy? I remember as a kid trying to make it, but I was never able to get the conditions just right. Too much water, too much sugar, maybe the room was too hot or too cold. Eventually it worked, and, wow, was it cool! Little sugar crystals start to form around the string in a jar of sugar water. Creating the right conditions for teamwork to form is like that; you have to get the conditions just right.

Characteristics of teams

Exhibit 1: Characteristics of teams

A Sense of Safety

The foundation of teams that rock is safety. In Maslow's hierarchy safety lies just below social needs and above physical needs. At a very basic level every person needs to feel safe. The opposite of safety is fear. People need to know that it is safe to share ideas freely here, to try and fail, to believe that the other people will do their part. If you don't have safety, you cannot have a team.

When we live in an organization characterized by fear for a long time, fear literally becomes deadly. When we operate in fear the hormone cortisol is pulsed into our blood. Cortisol is the fight or flight chemical. It helps us not to feel pain, and heightens intensity. Cortisol is designed to keep us alive. It is also intended to be in the systems for a very short time. However, it shuts down nonessential systems such as our growth systems and our immune system. So it should be expelled from the body quickly, and when it remains in us for a long time it has detrimental effects. When cortisol has shut down the immune system, people are more susceptible to disease. Stressful, unsafe working places are literally killing us (Sinek, 2013).

What is safety? When we feel safe, we feel that we can be ourselves, that we are valued, and that our contribution matters. When we feel safe we feel as though we can be ourselves and people will still care for us. Safety does not mean that nothing ever goes wrong, but it does mean that you feel secure that when something does go wrong, the people around you, the leaders in your organization, will look out for you, just as you will look out for them. To have a team that rocks we need to have a workplace that is safe.

Mutual Accountability for Goals

When asking groups of people to define a team, the most commonly identified element is having a common goal. A common goal such as winning a game, going to a championship or going to the Moon can unite a diverse group of people. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive (2011), defines one of the three key drives of motivation as having a purpose. (Pink, 2011) When this purpose is shared among a set of people they begin to move toward becoming a team. But having a common goal alone will not make a group of people a team. The classroom of people we mentioned earlier, has a shared goal—to pass the class—but each individual can complete that goal alone. To be a team, we must be mutually accountable for the goal. When we need each other to achieve our commonly held goal we are driven to the third element, necessarily interdependent. To have a team that rocks we need to have a goal for which we are mutually accountable.

Necessarily Interdependent

Necessary interdependence means that we cannot accomplish the goal we have as a team unless we work together. A basketball, volleyball, or other sports team is necessarily interdependent. Contrast them with participants in a solo sport such as golf or marathon running. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods both shared the same goal when they went pro. They both said they wanted to win championships. But Tiger Woods, even though he plays in a foursome, is able to achieve his goal all by himself. He is independent. Conversely, Michael Jordan can be the best player in the league, but he needs the team to win championships. Michael and the team are necessarily interdependent with regard to meeting the goal of winning championships. (DuFour, 2009)

We often use the worlds cooperate and collaborate interchangeably, but they are quite different. When people or organizations cooperate they have separate overall goals but cooperate to achieve something that they may have in common. They may cooperate because they know that by cooperation they can both reach their separate goals more quickly or more easily. In cooperation we are not working beyond our own goals; rather we are working together to achieve our individual goals. Neither of us is necessarily dependent upon the other for their success, but working together makes it easier and or better than working separately.

Collaboration, on the other hand, is deeply and necessarily interdependent. In collaboration our goal is mutual. When we collaborate there is a sense that the total is greater than the sum of the parts. When we collaborate we seek a common goal that neither of us could reach on our own. We are necessarily interdependent.

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2:

When teams are interdependent they grow more both by challenging other's ideas and by defending their own; in the end they create something different, stronger, and more innovative than what any of them could create on their own. (Roberts, 2004) To create a team that rocks we must become interdependent.

Creating a Context Where Teams Can Flourish

Intentionally Creating a Team Culture

Creating a team that rocks, where people feel safe and work interdependently toward a common goal, starts by creating a team culture that can sustain the sense of safety.

Culture is the set of shared beliefs and behaviors of a group of people. In most cases team culture is created completely by accident. The unintended consequence of a lack of planning is that most team cultures are less than exceptional! Exceptional team cultures are almost always the result of a conscious effort and intentional choices. Consider the cultures of Menlo Innovations, 37Signals, and Pixar Animation. These organizations have exceptional cultures, so people love to work there; but this is not accidental. You can read about their intentional creation in the books Joy, Inc. which is about Menlo Innovations, Remote which is about 37Signals, and Creativity, Inc., which is about Pixar Animation.

In Chapter 4 of Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, starts by sharing what were their two core principles when they started with Toy Story 2: “trust the process” and “story is king.” Catmull goes on to tell us how those two principles nearly killed the movie and why the principles were all wrong. The section talks about the request from Disney for Toy Story 2 to be a direct-to-video delivery that was essentially a lower quality design. This created a tension between the team on A Bugs Life, which was going to theaters, and the Toy Story 2 team. The very idea of creating something that was lower quality went against Pixar's core value of creating high quality shows. A year into the production of Toy Story 2 there were signs that the show was in trouble. It was more than that. It was almost a bomb. What they found was that their principles of “trust the process” and “story is king” had failed them. What they found was people are what make the difference. “We should trust in people, I told them, not processes,” the author writes. Hmm. Sounds like The Agile Manifesto: …we have come to value: individuals and interactions over processes and tools. (Kent Beck, 2001) An insightful part of Chapter 4 of Creativity, Inc. is when Catmull says that, “Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.” By making this course correction they saved Toy Story 2. In the end Pixar convinced Disney to have Toy Story 2 go to theaters, not direct to video.

There are two keys in this story about Pixar—one that is explicit and another, stronger, point, which is implicit. The explicit is that people are key to our organizations and that we need to focus on them. Getting the right people and the right chemistry is key, and nowhere near enough effort is put into this in most organizations.

The second point is implied by the story, but the author doesn't really talk about it. It is this: When they found that two of their core beliefs were misguided, they were willing to adapt. In this one act Ed Catmull and his staff were showing the organization the importance of learning and adapting. They were proving that it is OK to say you are wrong, it is OK to fail as long as you learn (Catmull, 2014).

Another organization that created an intentional context where teams can flourish is Menlo Innovations. Menlo Innovations, a software development company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has created an intentional culture that has joy as the core. Rich Sheridan, CEO and Chief Storyteller for Menlo Innovations, says in the book Joy, Inc. that he wanted to create an organization that was intentional, where the typical fear-based organizational culture is replaced by a culture based on joy. The culture at Menlo Innovations is very specific.

All 50 employees of Menlo Innovations work in one room. The room is reconfigurable, and teams group tables together to collaborate. Menlo Innovations allows dogs and babies to come to work because they have found that people work better when there are dogs and babies around. All development is done by a pair of developers. These pairs work two to a computer. By working two to a computer, they increase the communication and interaction while reducing the errors and isolation. With two sets of eyes and two brains working on one piece of work, the defects are reduced. There is enormous thought put into these tactics and reasons for each part of the culture, but it isn't a culture for everyone. Some people would find this context draining. True introverts are energized by time alone and drained by time in groups, while extroverts are the opposite. Many people reside somewhere in the middle. Menlo Innovations is a very intentional culture designed for extroverts. (Sheridan, 2014)

Another software company that has intentionally taken the opposite approach is 37Signals. The company works entirely remotely. Seventy percent of the employees are not in the office in Chicago, and those who are don't all work all day in the office. Some may work half a day from home and half a day in the office. The company has employees literally around the world. Collaboration is done through Skype, Google Hangouts, and other video conferencing and screen sharing tools. In the book Remote: Office Not Required, authors Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson describe how 37Signals created a culture of remote work and asynchronous collaboration. This culture challenges the way collaboration is comprehended and executed. Just a few years ago this kind of collaboration was not even conceivable, but today it is natural (Fried & Hansson, 2013). Just as Menlo Innovations is an intentional culture that is more comfortable for extroverts, 37Signals is more comfortable for introverts. You will note, however, that both companies create team cultures where people must collaborate.

Creating a Safe Team

Everyone needs to feel safe, but how do you create that sense of safety? As leaders we can help create what Amy Edmonson calls psychological safety by reassuring team members that taking risks and learning is what work is all about (Edmonson, 2012).

I like to tell a story about skiing. I explain that falling is as much a part of skiing as skiing. Great ski racers fall all the time. If they are not falling, they are playing it safe. They are not giving their all, they are just cruising; and we don't want to be cruising. We want to be pushing the edge. If we push the edge, we are going to fall. Acknowledge your own falling and failing. By doing so you will build trust and help the team see how you respond to failure.

One of my favorite quotes about this balance is from The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, (Cameron, 1998) ‘Tou can't get better and look good at the same time.” Improvement is always messy, but we are encouraged in work to get things right the first time. Failure is considered bad because it wastes time and money. What we don't realize is that the efforts required to try and get things right the first time cost so much more than small, quick failures that we learn from.

Psychological safety does not mean that the organization or team will be free from dissent or argument. Actually it means quite the opposite. In a truly safe organization, people feel free to disagree. Intel has a saying, “Disagree and commit.” This statement means that it is safe to disagree. At the end of the day however, Intel is a company that cannot wait for complete consensus, so they need to say be able to disagree but once the conversation is over, commit to one direction.

Creating a context of safety can start with you. Since you are only able to control what you do, it can only start with you. Simple things that you do will add dramatically to this. “Keeping All of Your Agreements” is one of the eight behavioral norms and standards of the 4-D Systems from How NASA Builds Teams (Pellerin, 2009). Starting and ending meetings on time is a simple way to demonstrate your commitment to keeping all of your commitments. People's time is valuable, as is yours. When first starting out with a group that is not yet a team, I start meetings by saying something like, “I know you are busy. I want to respect your time. So let's get started on time…” And if you are drawing toward the end of the time allocated, but the discussions have not concluded yet, end anyway. Yep, End anyway. Tell the team, “Hey we are running out of time. I will jot down were we are in the conversation and book another time for us.

I want to respect your time and end when we said we would.” Likewise, if you are done with the purpose of the meeting, end the meeting. Don't just use the time because you have the people together. They will feel hijacked and not trust you.

As a leader it is important to be personally vulnerable by admitting your own mistakes and not acting defensive when people disagree with you. These things will help the team begin to believe you when you say that you are changing the culture.

Amy Edmonson (2012) lists several signs that your organization is psychologically safe:

  • People on a team may say such things as:
    • “We all respect each other.”
    • “When something bugs me, we're able to confront each other.”
    • “Everyone in our group takes responsibility for what we do.”
    • “I don't have to wear a mask at work. I can be myself.”
  • People talk about mistakes and problems, not just successes.
  • The workplace appears to be conductive to humor and laughter (Edmonson, 2012).

When you start to see these things, you know you are on the right track to creating a team culture that rocks.

Knowing and Being Known

Knowing each other goes beyond knowing that Bob does testing and Janet does development. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002), Patrick Lencioni tells a parable about a Silicon Valley startup that is turned around when an insightful, new CEO, Kathryn Petersen, draws a five-part pyramid on the whiteboard to show the five dysfunctions of teams she has worked with in the past. Each layer builds upon the ones below, if you don't have the bottom layers you can't get to the top. The very bottom layer is “lack of trust.” The way Kathryn goes about helping the team get past this first dysfunction is by asking them to share a little bit about themselves. Lencioni isn't talking about baring our inner souls to each other but simply about sharing of a little bit about ourselves to help break down barriers and create what Lencioni calls “vulnerability-based trust.” Kathryn asks each person on the team to give a brief personal history by simply sharing three things: where they grew up, how many kids were in the family, and what was the most difficult or important challenge of their childhood (not their inner child but a challenge when being a kid). This simple exercise will deepen their relationships. They'll learn to get comfortable with each other by sharing things that are important to them and letting down their guard.

Knowing and being known can have profound consequences. Take, for example, the story of my oldest daughter, who loves volleyball. The girl sleeps with a volleyball tucked under her arm! The coaches she has had each have made all the difference to the team in each season.

Last season they were playing at a four-day tournament. It was long and hard. To this point the team had played well together, but they weren't playing up to their potential. The coaches called a team meeting and had the girls do a team bonding exercise. (No parents allowed, and coaches were not allowed to speak. They were only there to facilitate.) The girls sat in a circle. One by one, each girl was on the hot seat. The other girls would say one thing they appreciated about that girl. Every girl spoke. From the reports I heard, there were tears and joy. The coaches were astounded with what they heard—all of their beliefs and more were said by the girls on the team. It was a powerful and moving time.

What happened next is the proof of the power of knowing each other. Later that day the team was playing a game at 9:30 p.m., after having played several other games that day. The team they were up against was one they had played before and lost to. These girls played the best volleyball I had ever seen them play. They even fought back from a huge point deficit for the win, something they had never done before. The coaches and parents were just in awe. What had changed? They didn't get extra practice to play better, they didn't learn new techniques, they didn't even spend time drilling. They just got to know each other, to care more for each other, and it made all the difference.

These volleyball games are played to 25 points, and the winning team has to win by two points. In this game at 9:30 p.m. (late for a bunch of middle school girls who had played several games by this point) the opposing team had 24 points, we had 16. In most circumstances this would be a done deal. The other team would win. But not that night. Our girls fought back and won that game at 9:30 p.m. It seriously brings tears to my eyes when I tell this story. I am so proud of those girls!

The coaches were team-building coaches; they focused on the girls and building skills that were good for that team—for these girls, at this time. They didn't teach them some pre-packaged set of skills that, yes, are good and important skills for a volleyball player but not necessarily for that particular team. The coaches focused on the culture of the team and knew that the technical skills would come in time.

Another example of knowing and being known comes from when I once worked with a team lead who was struggling, not obviously, but I could read his body language and tone. I knew something was up. I had recently heard of a great technique from Christopher Avery that I thought would fit this situation. I found the team lead at a time when I knew he wouldn't be too busy, asked if he had a few minutes, and closed his door. The technique is very simple. I asked, “Why are you here on this project?” The trick is to sit quietly and wait. My friend was very introverted, and I knew it would take time. I asked the question and shut my mouth. It took about a minute. Eventually he spoke and shared that he had struggled on a recent project and really wanted to prove himself on this project. This knowledge of his challenge and his desire to prove himself helped me to work with him throughout the rest of the project.

Creating a culture where people know each other more deeply than just at the surface does not have to be as touchy-feely as the volleyball team's compliment circle was or even as my interaction with the technical lead was. It can be as simple as appreciating people. Try this simple trick. Find one person on your team and privately ask that person, “Who are a couple of people who have done some great work this week, and what did they do?” Find those people and tell them that the other person told you they did a great job with x. Then ask them to identify a couple of people who also have done a great job. Very quickly you will get through the whole team and share your appreciation and their peer appreciation. Feeling appreciated is a huge factor in helping create a safe organization.

Distributed Decision Making

If you really want a team that rocks, try creating a culture of distributed decision making. Most organizations I consult with have an overly cumbersome decision making process. For some reason organizations operate out of a fear of failure so strong that they create these processes to ensure that things are done right the first time. When leaders insist that a project must get everything right the first time, they create a context where fear rules and creativity ends. When this happens, people stop trying to innovate or provide creative solutions. They have shut down mentally; every decision is going to be made by the boss anyway, so they wait. This is a “tell me what to do” culture.

In a “tell me what to do” culture, decision making follows a predictable pattern:

  • When a decision is needed the team is not allowed to make it.
  • So work on that feature stops. This causes delay.
  • People up the line of command are all briefed on the topic.
  • These people insist on some changes in the wording of the decision package, even though they cannot make a decision. This all causes delay and increased cost because these people's effective rate is higher than the teams’.
  • Eventually the decision maker makes the decision and everyone down the line is informed of the decision.
  • Finally the team gets the decision.
  • Work on that feature can be started again, but even more time is lost then in trying to pick up the pieces that were stopped.

Consider how many hands had to touch that idea all up and down the line. Think about the cost associated with this. There is the cost of each of the people who had to review the decision—these are some of the top paid people in your organization. These people all had to be brought up to speed on the context of the question, and then they had to think about and make a decision regarding the question. If it took six people half an hour each to be briefed and to get to know the issues, the cost to the company in delay as well as cost in the salary and opportunity cost or cost of delay in the work that these high-level people could have been doing was staggering.

Now consider an alternative, the distributed decision making model. The team, working in short iterations, flips a coin every time there is a decision. They will, on average get 50 % of the decisions correct, in line with what the eventual decision maker would have decided. But they have saved all that time, and they won't have involved those costly decision makers all along. Since they are working in short iterations, they will show their completed 50/50 work to the decision maker at the end of their iteration; he or she will provide feedback, and they will have to fix some percentage of the items. It likely won't be 50% because some of the decisions are ones that the decision maker would be OK with. Let's say it is 40% that need to be iterated and improved. Even with this 40% error rate it will likely still cost the company less with this approach because the work will not be delayed, and it won't get all those high paid execs and managers involved.

But it is even better than that. Their team isn't made up of coin flippers. Their team is made up of smart people who know the product, know the market, and know the customers. They will have a far better batting average than this. They may get only five percent of the decisions wrong. There is a cost to fix these five percent of decisions that are wrong. But it is minuscule compared to the cost of all those other people having to get involved.

A factor seldom accounted for in such scenarios is what is known as the cost of delay (CoD). When considering the costs incurred above for the time that the decision had to travel through the lines of command, we should add the CoD. If the delivery the product release was expected to generate revenue on the order of $100,000 and the project launch was delayed by three months because of all the decisions that had to be made through this silo structure, the cost of delay is $300,000, plus any interest we assume they could have incurred. I have been a part of projects that were delayed years because of internal decision making processes that stalled the project. And let's not forget the cost of the work that the managers and executives who would have been making these lower level decisions and now can be on to other things.

But even if an organization takes the approach that it is OK for the teams to design stuff and then fix the things that don't line up with the leader's ideas, this isn't the optimal situation. In this situation, the leaders of the organization are still operating out of a position of fear. The leaders still want to be in complete control of the situation; they are just willing to let the teams take a stab at getting close. This is obviously a purely theoretical organization because the fact that any items that are not aligned with the leaders’ opinion will have to be fixed will create a state of fear since people don't want to redo their work.

In this situation they know that there is one right answer, and they are just trying to guess and get it right. This will result in an organization driven by fear, which, as we have seen, stifles creativity.

If you want real creativity there is a third option. The third option is a supportive, secure, safe culture where the leadership of the organization understands that, as long as the organization is learning failure is not only OK it is desirable. In this organization the leaders set the direction of the work but allow the team to determine how best to attain the goal.

Two key phrases leaders can implement to help cultivate a distributed decision making model are,

“What do you think?”


“Yes and …”

The next time you are in a discussion where a decision needs to be made and the room is looking at you to tell them what your decision is, stop and simply say, “Well I have some thoughts, but first I want to hear what do you think? How do you think it should go?” And then wait. The first time this will probably be a bit of a shock to the team but wait and let them talk. You will likely have the same ideas, but now they are involved. On the other hand someone may have a great, new idea! Then everyone wins.

This next part might be harder than the first. Take their idea and use it! Don't use yours. Or if you just can't let go, take a page from improv and say, “Tes, and . . .” Saying No shuts down conversation and innovation. “Yes and . . .” validates the other people's ideas and builds trust. When your team comes up with an idea say, “Tes, and . . .”; then add to their idea. It keeps their idea in the forefront but allows you to enhance it.

This won't fix all of your problems, but it is a start. After you try it, not before, talk with your direct reports and have them start doing the same thing. It is important to wait until you have personally implemented it so that they see that you are committed to doing it, not just telling them to do it. Little things done consistently over time will turn your organization around, save you a lot of money, and make your team rock.


Teams that rock have three things in common: a sense of safety, mutual accountability for goals, and they are necessarily interdependent. Teams are the engine that gets most work done in business today, and great teams can make your entire organization grow.

You can create a team that rocks if you will focus your efforts on creating a context where teams that rock can flourish by:

  • Intentionally creating a team culture that encourages collaboration not just cooperation;
  • Cultivating a sense of safety by modeling respect;
  • Encouraging team members to know each other through simple sharing and appreciation;
  • Using the phrases, “What do you think?” and “Yes, and . . .” to create a more distributed decision making model subtly.

While shifting the culture of a team is not easy, it is imperative to do if you want to create a team that rocks.


Blanchard, K. (2009). The critical role of teams. Retrieved from http://www.kenblanchard.com/Leading-Research/Research/The-Critical-Role-of-Teams.

Catmull, E.. & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. New York, NY: Random House .

DuFour, R. (2009). Solution tree: Rick DuFour on groups vs. teams. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hV65KIItlE.

Edmonson, A. (2012). Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jason Fried, D. H. (2013). Remote: Office not required. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco: CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pink, D. (2011). Drive: The suprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Roberts, T. (2003). Online collaborative learning: Theory and practice. Farmington Hills, MI: Information Science Publishing.

Sheridan, R. (2013). Joy, inc.: How we built a workplace people love. New York, NY: Portfolio.

Sinek, S. (2013). Simon Sinek: Why leaders eat last. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReRcHdeUG9Y.

© 2014, Joseph Flahiff
Published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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