Fight to Win: How a Little Friction Sparks Innovation

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Contently co-founder Shane Snow explains why it’s not a good thing if team members get along too well.

91QFhUdOWNLThe concept of “dream teams” started in sports, but companies are embracing the idea as a way to build a more innovative office culture. In his book, Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart, Shane Snow explains why such groups work best when the members are diverse and don’t just get along to go along. Snow, a journalist and co-founder of content marketing company Contently, joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM to explain how a bit of respectful tension can yield big results.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.  

Knowledge@Wharton: What makes a great team?

Shane Snow: We talk about teamwork in lots of different ways, but I think a dream team is a team that defies the odds and does what most teams don’t do, which is it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. We say things like synergy, we say things like two heads are better than one, but most of the time teamwork is hard [to do well].

Most of the time, a group of people is only as smart as the smartest person in the group. But once in a while, a group manages to add up to more, and that can happen in sports or in business. There are subtle psychology and neuroscience [factors] behind what makes the difference.

Knowledge@Wharton: It seems more companies want to build teams now rather than relying on one person to do an entire project. They want to bring people together and have that great corporate culture.

Snow: That’s part of what I wanted to study in this odyssey that became this book. If we can look in history at teams that managed to do the impossible or the incredible or defeated the odds, what do they have in common? What does new research tell us about human relationships and group dynamics so that we can build a template or a framework for how we can do what you’re talking about?

I have been using this analogy of a cake. The very first thing when you’re baking a cake is you assemble all of the ingredients, and you don’t want for all of those to be five different types of flour. You’re not going to make something better than flour if that’s all you do, yet so often the first step we do in building a team is get people who are alike, who have great personality fits, who think similarly, and we get excited about that.

“If there is one skill that everyone in business could develop that could make all business better … it would be intellectual humility.”

There are all sorts of psychological reasons why that makes our brain happy. But the first step is realizing that the cake is not made from similar ingredients. A dream team is not going to happen with just an army of Redcoats marching in line the same way. But that’s when the hard part starts.

Knowledge@Wharton: You say that to have a great team, the people don’t always have to get along. Can you explain?

Snow: Business is all about problem-solving. If you are solving novel problems or important problems, you want to give yourself the maximum chance of finding breakthrough solutions to those problems. You minimize your chance of doing that if you put the wrong people together.

In the basketball analogy, any basketball team is going to have players that play different roles. We’ve discovered that what often makes a difference between a great team and a dynasty is having players or a player who isn’t just getting lots of points, but who is putting their hand in the face of the person on the other team and is forcing them to their bad side. The person who is doing things that aren’t visibly making them look good, but that are helping the whole team succeed. We often promote people for being visibly good at their job, yet over and over again we look at research and see that teams with people with great individual statistics don’t necessarily get further than other teams.

It’s about not getting along well that helps a team to turn ideas around and find solutions that no one could think of. It’s actually that friction between different viewpoints and different ideas that brings out the potential to see further than anyone can see.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you take a historical perspective and bring up examples from years gone by. One is the Wright Brothers. Tell us more.

Snow: The mythology about the Wright Brothers is here are these two guys in a shop. They were underfunded, there were all of these other people with much better resources, but they invented the airplane and changed the world.

They were brothers and knew they had similar perspectives on a lot of things. They grew up together. They knew that if they wanted to solve hard problems together, they would have to stoke the fire of cognitive friction, as I call it. They would be working on a problem and trying to find a solution, and they would force themselves to take really hard stances and argue from sometimes real points of views and sometimes contrived points of view. They would have these really intense arguments to the point that their shop assistants would worry and the neighbors would worry. Then they would stop, eat their sandwiches or whatever, then go back to fighting.

They wanted to deliberately raise their voices and get really intense in whatever they were debating because they knew that was going to help them find solutions. But they also knew that at the point where they wanted to strangle each other, they were no longer going to be effective. They had to detach their need to be right and detach their ego from their ideas.

“We also need to stop thinking of the leader as the hero.”

This little debate-and-switch worked for them because they were brothers. They could have fights a little more intensely than I think most people would be comfortable with at work. But the underlying principle is that they knew they had to smash different ideas together, they had to play with things that might be crazy or that might be offensive to their engineering sensibilities.

Knowledge@Wharton: Co-workers are often competitive and don’t always respect each other’s opinions. How do we deal with that?

Snow: If there is one skill that everyone in business could develop that could make all business better — and honestly communities and politics and everything else — it would be intellectual humility. That is the ability not only to respect someone’s viewpoint when it’s different than yours, but to detach your ego from being right and being able to revise your viewpoint when necessary. And that is really hard.

We have a problem in business where we don’t reward people for admitting they are wrong. We don’t reward people for being flexible leaders. We reward people for being right. If that is how you are going to get promoted, that is how you are going to get commissions, then of course that is the behavior we are going to encourage.

A group only becomes as smart as its leader who has been put in the position of making decisions. But if we want to make more progress together, we need to start flipping that. The leaders need to be the ones who first admit that they are wrong, to first admit that they are fallible, to make it safe for everyone to explore ideas and to talk about things and to put forward perspectives that may not work out.

It starts with the leaders building an environment of trust where people know that if they do something, if they have an idea that is bad, or if they lose an argument or debate or whatever it is, their job is not on the line. Their position is secure because the debates are about moving the game forward, not about convincing people to your point of view.

Knowledge@Wharton: In terms of team leadership, is a collaborative approach better? Or does it depend on the situation?

Snow: ‘It depends’ is probably the most frustrating answer. But it does depend on the size of the group, the makeup of the group and the stakes. If you have a large group, you are going to need somebody to make the call. You can’t have consensus on everything, and consensus would be bad. But you are going to need to be able to explore ideas, explore solutions, get as many diverse inputs as you can that are relevant to your process, and maybe some that are irrelevant so that you can explore new intellectual territory. But at some point, someone needs to say, “OK, done is better than perfect. We need to move forward.” That is harder to do in a big group, so we need leaders to be decision-makers.

“I banned the word culture fit, and people now have to say culture add.”

We also need to stop thinking of the leader as the hero. Historically, leaders have been the big strong one that can go to battle and be stoic and not change, and that helps us feel safe. That doesn’t work in business anymore. But we tend to promote people who look like that, we tend to vote for people who seem like they are strong and stoic, and that is not good. The leader needs to be someone who is comfortable leading from the shadows if necessary, who sees their role as unlocking the creativity and potential in their people, who sees their job as making the team smarter than they are. That means you don’t have to be out in front, you don’t have to be the smartest person.

The little bit I explored about sports and dream teams, this came out really clearly in some research by Sam Walker, who looked at the greatest sports dynasties in history and found that they had a pattern where the captain of the team was never the lead scorer. Or the captain of the team was the one who was willing to sacrifice to set the example, to be vulnerable, to push back, to have the hard conversations, and didn’t care about the glory. Whether the team is big or small, I think that is the role of the leader.

Knowledge@Wharton: You are the co-founder of Contently. How did writing this book affect your approach with your own company?

Snow: A lot of the research that I was learning, a lot of the conclusions that I was coming to, I workshopped those at my company. I would get up and do these lunch talks where I would present in oral form the things that I was studying and learning, and I would get feedback. That was a big part of it.

But the most rewarding thing is that we had something special going on at the company, and part of it was this band of misfits thing. We were pretty good at debating and not getting personal about things. Recognizing that I was writing about some of the things that came naturally to us was rewarding. But there were some things that I was a little more horrified about: the way we were talking about ‘culture fit’ and really creating ‘cult fit’; the way that, as we got bigger, we were serious about getting people who are the same as us. We realized that was wrong. What has made this special is the fact that we are not the same.

I banned the word culture fit, and people now have to say culture add. And you can’t say culture add as a euphemism for culture fit. But even that little bit primes you to remember that what we’re looking for when we’re hiring is not someone who reminds me of me, someone I get along with, but someone who is going to give me something that I don’t have on my team.

It has also changed the questions we ask in hiring. We are much bigger about asking people for their stories. We ask questions about the times you’ve changed your mind in your life when it was hard, lessons you have learned, what you read, things that evoke stories about a human’s journey that can help us understand what different things these people are bringing. Because any smart person can answer the right questions in an interview, but that is not the most important part anymore.

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