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Uncovering the Hidden Potential of Teams

I’ve always struggled with teamwork. I may talk a good game…

  •  As an educator, I’m all about teaching students skills such as collaboration and communication, in part, to up their team skills. 

  • As a leader, I’m all about bringing various voices to the table and engaging in collaborative processes. 

  • As a human, I recognize the value in collective wisdom.

And, as me, just being honest, being a part of a team is just so hard.

I may still be traumatized from my third grade rainforest food web project where I had to do all of the work while my classmates/team members/friends just ate all of the snacks.

And pretty much every school project I had after that, which went similarly. 

But, as I think more and more about what it means to be human in a world of artificial intelligence…and how we can maximize what makes us uniquely human, I have to admit that teamwork ranks up there. 

So it might be time to get over the trauma and delve into the potential.

In the eighth chapter of the book Hidden Potential, Adam Grant shares, “The best teams aren’t the ones with the best thinkers. They’re the teams that unearth and use the best thinking from everyone.”

In an article from the Harvard Business Review about how Pixar fosters collective creativity, Ed Catmull shares a similar sentiment about the potential value, saying, “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they’ll make it work.”

Okay, Grant and Catmull, I get it. But, not all teams are created the same. So how do we make the most of the potential of our teams?

Here are some places to start:

Common goals

Having clearly articulated, common goals in which everyone is invested is a crucial first step. Catmull shares that the best teams are when “everyone is fully invested in helping everyone else turn out the best work,” and Grant explains that “what really makes a difference is whether people recognize that they need one another to succeed on an important mission. That’s what enables them to bond around a common identity and stick together to achieve their collective goals.” So, how are we creating this sense of common goals in our teams?

Intentional leadership and/or facilitation

Good teams don’t just happen. And not every leader is a good team leader. Grant explains, “Collective intelligence is best served by a different kind of leader. The people to promote are the ones with the prosocial skills to put the mission above their ego – and team cohesion above personal glory. They know that the goal isn’t to be the smartest person in the room; it’s to make the entire room smarter.” So when considering the goals of our teams, how are we ensuring we have the “right” leaders in place?

Everyone has a voice

Some people are just naturally louder, and often these are the people who tend to dominate our teams. As such, Grant discusses how ineffectual brainstorming is to actually generating new ideas, discussing how we actually get more (and better) ideas if we work alone. Grant shares, “Collective intelligence begins with individual creativity. But it doesn’t end there. Individuals produce a greater volume and variety of novel ideas when they work alone. That means that they come up with more brilliant ideas than groups – but also more terrible ideas than groups. It takes collective judgment to find the signal in the noise.” Whether it be a group project or a company meeting, how are we creating space for all individuals to think about and share ideas?

Anyone can speak with anyone

Both Catmull and Grant suggest a less hierarchical approach to the workplace. For example, Grant profiles a lattice-type structure, rather than a traditional ladder, so people can go to any number of higher-ups for approval and support, depending on the project. By limiting ideas to levels of the company with only one way to move them up, we significantly limit the flow of creativity. How are we creating opportunities in our organizations for this kind of open flow of ideas?

It all starts with culture 

Ultimately, any team will be mostly likely just be a microcosm of the culture of the organization, and the best teams will have a sense of honesty, transparency, and accountability. Catmull suggests, “What we can do is construct an environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity.” Grant emphasizes the value of cultivating certain skills and dispositions, saying “When they have prosocial skills, team members are able to bring out the best in one another. Collective intelligence rises as team members recognize one another’s strengths, develop strategies for leveraging them, and motivate one another to align their efforts in pursuit of a shared purpose. Unleashing hidden potential is about more than having the pieces – it’s about having the best glue.” So how are we creating a culture that is conducive to productive teams?

That glue that Grant mentions seems to be the special ingredient. We need the common goals, the intentional leadership, the individual and collective voices, the open flow of ideas…all within the right culture. 

Only then can we unlock the hidden potential of teams (and make those third grade rainforest projects less traumatic for all!).

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