by Ruth Wageman on

Search on “teamwork” and what you won’t see anymore are arguments about whether teams matter.  What you see is “optimizing individuals isn’t enough,” and “teams are the building blocks of organizational success,” and “teams can transform productivity,” along with “the 9 (or 5 or 10) secrets to great teamwork.”

If you’re here you probably agree that great teams can change the world for the better, and that we need smart, effective, reliable practices to build and sustain great teams.  I believe that there IS science that can guide those practices, and I want to help build the discipline and mindset that will allow all of us who care about teams to bring the best of our art in line with the science in the best way possible. We are frustrated by single studies that make big claims, by simple cause-effect models, and by checklists that mix up high-impact design features of teams with emergent team dynamics that are not amenable to intervention.

Some such advice seems obviously helpful on the face of it: if team members are struggling with conflict, help them work out their conflicts. Or if they feel it’s not safe to make mistakes in front of each other, build safety.  Or if people aren’t dependable, help them hold each other accountable.

If you work with teams, you know how hard those things are to do.  What if they are so hard because addressing the dynamics directly is missing the root causes of those dynamics?  What if there were a fundamental feature of the team—in fact, more than one—that can be changed and that, in turn, will allow the team to work out its conflicts, build safety and engage in dependable team efforts over time?

I’m inviting a different way of thinking than the checklists and simple correlations that inundate this field.  What are the handful of conditions, if we can get them in place, together set up a team to develop great practices and evolve into a superb team?  The science of teams as complex systems—of conditions thinking—has so much power to guide our practice toward real impact.

Let me offer an illustration, one that is the most common conversation I have had with team professionals who begin to practice conditions thinking.  Many professionals have spent years making team conflict their main point of entry and intervention in trying to help teams.  And many have expressed frustration at how often they see teams, after much careful process consultation and dialogue, return to entrenched patterns of conflict.  When, instead, they asked what conditions create conflict? Can those be changed? they see that teams that have no shared purpose, are performing tasks that are purely individual in design, have no agreed norms of conduct, and are rewarded strictly as individual performers are powerfully set up to produce conflict. If—as the science shows us—we focus then on articulating shared purpose, designing interdependent team tasks, crafting constructive norms, and rewarding and recognizing team excellence, then the conflicts become rarer, easier to handle, and indeed, come within the capability of the team to handle themselves.

I invite you to reflect on a team that you know well that was genuinely superb.  What were the conditions that contributed to that team becoming superb?  How can those conditions be created for teams you know that are struggling?