I love to watch television shows about the natural universe. The content of these television programs simply fascinates me at a visceral level I don’t experience with other subjects. I wonder at the possibilities of the cosmos, the history of the universe, the beginnings of consciousness in pre-historic humanoid brains, and the other organisms we share this planet with. I think about how humans may be connected with animals, how our culture and community may be connected with our past, and how each of us may have more in common with each other through a shared historical experience than we allow ourselves to believe. I love to ponder about the nature of simply being. I think about this topic because on a regular basis I get to see a wide variety of people and get to see how they relate to job and their team, how they choose to exist professionally.
I frequently work with teams of people from a range of companies, industries, and backgrounds, and its during these sessions that I think back to those larger thoughts about how we experience our lives as individuals and as members of teams. What makes some teams click, thrive, and deliver? How do some groups of people truly share a common goal and work creatively to achieve it? Why do some groups of people seem to only suffer through projects and then deliver dismal results, consistently? What is the definable difference between the experiences of these different groups? Why are some people happy with their job, their company, their project, their healthcare, their family, their car, their house, their spouse, their life, while others would seemingly choose to be dissatisfied no matter what they may be blessed with? Where are the connection of neurons responsible for our ability to be happy and productive on a team? And does this ability to choose happiness relate to better relationships and results at work? How do I grant the gift of effortless success and indomitable growth to teams that struggle endlessly to achieve even modestly positive results?
To help me answer these questions, I turned to an insightful book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. In the book authors Katzenback and Smith define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and a common approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” Although I agree wholeheartedly with their definition, the book did not satisfy the curiosity I had about what components make certain teams tick and others tock. I needed an understanding at a deeper level, I needed to examine the DNA of teams. So instead of reading more about teams from a business perspective, I instead looked into those double helixes that seem to determine everything about us, our very own DNA, to see if any insight could be found.
The human genome project promised to finally unlock the secret recipe for what makes us who we are. And like so many other great scientific promises of the past, it failed to yield an answer to everything, but rather provided a perfect foundation for even greater questions. Although our DNA provides the building blocks for our physical being, it cannot alone explain the curiosities of individuals, from our personalities, to our attitudes, to our propensity for success, or our ability to trudge inexorably to failure. This mysterious exclusion is expressed effectively in the observation of identical twins, where the DNA encoding remains identical, but where nearly all else is unique, especially when the brain is examined.
Like our DNA, we often cannot choose the members that make up our team, but equally similar to DNA, it is not simply the members of our team that pre-determine our possibilities. Too often I hear individuals complain that consistent success would be possible if only they were assigned to the right team or if the right team were assigned to them. This superficial failure of perspective can often become a self-fullfilling prophecy, yielding the expected negative results as a consequence of subconscious actions driven in support of the consciously expected outcome. As with many mysteries of life, perspective and belief are more powerful than we allow ourselves to consider. We seem to be more content to apply unreasoned reasons to our perceived consequences rather than seeking to drive meaning from those things for which we could have affected the outcome.
Recent discoveries in the world of science confirm the notion that we are more than our parts, both on the individual and team levels. These scientific revelations point to a beautiful aspect of life that affirms that we are not limited by our structure, but are allowed infinite possibilities through the wonder of chaos; an inability and impossibility of perfectly predicting results based solely on observing conditions, thus free will is born and an infinite number of possible minds follows. Author Jonah Lehrer states “that [this] is the triumph of DNA; it makes us without determining us. The invention of neural plasticity, which is encoded by the genome, lets each of us transcend our genome. We emerge, character-like, from the vague alphabet of our text.” And as is true for individuals, it is equally true for how effectives teams can be, regardless of their own DNA, regardless of the individual components of the team.
Supporting these ideas, in a 2002 Science paper entitled “Stochastic Gene Expression in a Single Cell” Michael Elowitz of Caltech demonstrated that biological “noise” (a scientific synonym for chaos) is inherent in gene expression. His results further solidified the unfolding scientific belief that it was this “noise” that held most of the possibilities for emergence in design for organisms, which contradicted the earlier collective belief that natural selection alone held this potential. These discoveries, by extension, illuminated the idea that without this inclusion of chaos, then every cell that was created by the same DNA would operate, behave, and produce the same results, but we know that this is not the case. In fact, without this beautiful inclusion to our evolution, we would not experience the diversity of life that we do.
Digging more deeply into what constitutes success in these complex adaptive systems (organized as teams), yields the result that diversity in experience, knowledge, personality, and drive is what allow them to truly excel. The equivalent in nature was captured by Darwin when he wrote that ”the more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature.” A team’s diversity is one its greatest strengths, so long as the diversity is expressed and exercised regularly.
Teams are not doomed to failure as an inevitable consequence of the composition of it’s members. Similarly, individuals are not merely limited to the sum of their specific DNA coded sequences. And if these statements are true, how do we then affect better outcomes from both teams and individuals? Just as individuals are formed by their experiences that shape their neurons, bringing temporary neural order to chaos, so too can teams also allow their experience to help bring consistency in results to their previously unpredictable outcomes. But in order to make this happen, teams need two very important components in place: 1. An ability to clearly define their current state set against their preferred results (this allows the team to define the state of dissonance between reality and possibility, thus developing creative tension in the structure). 2. A mechanism that allows the team to utilize experience to shape future team decisions.
I am a firm believer that:
- Given the opportunity, most people would rather succeed than fail.
- People are very well aware of organizational constraints that limit their ability to achieve and succeed.
- Most people feel limited in their ability to affect change in their job.
So what is the answer? How do we elicit better results from our teams?
If you are still with me this far, then it is only fair that I provide you an answer, right? Unfortunately, as much as I would like to, I cannot provide an answer, only a direction.
The potential source for your organization’s power lies in the unexplored richness of experience and understanding held by your people. You may believe that your organization actively solicits input and feedback, but if your organization is like most, you don’t, at least not well enough. You will know when you have breached the barrier that separates average teams and corporate culture from their extraordinary equivalents. You will know because you will discover the roar that exists on the other side of silence. Do not dig unprepared for what you may find, the roar is often deafening.