By Thomas A. Stewart | April 5, 2011
You saw it last night: UConn’s Kemba Walker is the best college basketball player in America. More than a star, he’s a sun around which the other players orbit.
Two generations ago, Bill Bradley, similarly solar, led Princeton to the NCAA’s Final Four; he was a prodigious scorer but also a promiscuous passer, shovelling the ball to other (less talented) players, who rebuffed his false modesty by passing it back. His pro career, though, was different. The New York Knicks were a team of near-equals; four of its five starters made the NBA’s hall of fame. Bradley himself scored, on average, about half as many points as he did in college. Like UConn’s Huskies, Bradley’s Tigers were a lead singer with a doo-wop chorus; his Knicks were a quintet.
So which was the better team?
Judging by the motivational posters you see on HR department walls, there are two kinds of teamwork. In one, everybody holds hands in a circle. We’re in this together, they seem to say. The handholders are often skydiving, but even a mile high you can smell the campfire and hear the voices singing “Kumbaya.” The other common poster shows someone reaching out to give someone a helping hand-up a hill, across a gorge. In these pictures, the strong help the weak; Indiana Jones races back into the temple to save the arthritic old-timer and plucky girl with the twisted ankle before the roof falls in. It’s the opposite of UConn’s hoopsters, where the team exists to feed the best player.
Actually, there are four different kinds of teams, none of which has anything to do with sentimentality. They’re organized in different ways; they’re suited to different purposes; and if you understand the taxonomy of teamwork you’ll be a better leader and a better player.
- Problem solvers. One reason to team up is to crack a tough problem, because when it comes to banging against a wall, two heads are better than one, and seven or eight are better still. Juries are problem-solvers. So are teams of analysts. These teams need a clear goal–a problem and a deadline. They want diversity of sex, background, and cognition, and not just tokenism, as studies by Lynda Gratton of London Business School show. Some of the best, teams of virtuosos, can be cantankerous and quarrelsome. That’s why they need a galvanizing goal: without one, their very diversity may tear them apart. American World War II movies depict problem-solving teams: Iowa farm-boy, West Virginia miner, Brooklyn stick-ball player, and preppie musician call on their disparate skills to improvise a way to destroy the impregnable German pillbox.
- Loyal followers. In British movies about the Second World War, the emphasis is on banding together to serve the charismatic leader. The greatest of those films was Laurence Olivier’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the young king summoned his knights and common soldiers once more into the breach, having earlier called them
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be ne’re so base.
(In Shakespeare’s text, “base” is “vile,” from villein, meaning commoner.) A team of loyal followers needs not a problem but a cause–someone or something worth putting yourself on the line for. That’s not usually shareholder value, incidentally.
- Ragtag bands of merry men. These teams exist outside an organization’s power structure and are often purposefully subversive of it. They may be true outlaws like Robin Hood and his Sherwood Forest buddies or Castro and his cadre in the Sierra Maestra mountains. In business, ragtag bands may be start-ups, some of which have it in for the establishment. (Remember Macintosh’s “1984″ Super Bowl commercial?) Sometimes they’re employees set up as the loyal opposition, like Lockheed’s Skunk Works and its imitators-special groups protected from hierarchs and budget hawks so as to disrupt the existing order from within. These teams usually have an official leader responsible for placating the authorities, but are highly democratic and improvisatory internally.
- Protective cordons. Every good team protects its members, but some are designed specifically for the purpose. For the most part these aren’t high-performing teams; their purpose is protection, not production. At their worst, these teams obscure accountability, tolerate mediocre performance, and cover up each other’s sins. That happens when bureaucratic companies want to hide from customers, for example. In these teams, everyone’s responsible, so no one’s responsible. That’s not always a bad thing. At their best, these teams protect decent people so from capricious or arbitrary bosses. “They can’t fire all of us” is their motto– the corporate version of “I’m Spartacus.”
A smart leader suits the team to the task and vice versa. That’s not easy. In my experience, most organizations have teams of all four kinds, but one style dominates. (If your organization has a lot of protective teams, you should ask why.) I don’t think individual teams change much. Outlaws don’t come indoors, put on cardigans, and sip sherry; protectors don’t suddenly congregate in the team room, open their laptops, and start problem-solving. Which type of team is better? That depends on the job.