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Collaborative teams: an outstanding team of individuals – not a team of outstanding individuals

August 1, 2016

So, the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final passed at the weekend, a game where Alf Ramsey’s England won 4-2 after extra-time against West Germany. The England scorers included a hat-trick from Geoff Hurst (18th, 101st, 120th minutes), a feat yet to be matched.

Whilst Hurst took the plaudits, England was an outstanding team of individuals, not a team of outstanding individuals, and this approach to building winning teams has many lessons for start-ups. Let’s look back.

This is the day we’ve all been waiting for says Kenneth Wolstenholme at the start of the BBC commentary. Saturday 30 July 1966. Match day. The lads are there in a fidgeting line in the gloom of the tunnel, behind Sir Alf, waiting to come out. Four of them are bouncing balls whilst the others are staring ahead, silent with their own thoughts.

England is in cherry red shirts, full sleeved with a simple round neck, plain, no logos or adverts. A modest football kit that today resonates with emotion. The Germans are in crisp white shirts with black trim and black shorts.

The English team comes out of the tunnel into the roar of pandemonium English support, rattles and klaxon horns. The weather forecast said ‘sunny periods and showers, becoming dry later’.

The Queen takes to the Royal Box in time for the national anthem. She’s wearing an ostentatious hat, which matches her handbag. What’s in the bag? Programme and pie, I’d imagine. Perchance some toffees. Next to her is FIFA president Stanley Rous, presumably holding Her Majesty’s Bovril.

The Royal Marine band play a few tunes, then the German anthem, like the British one before it, is met with a silent respect that speaks volumes for the Sixties football fan. No need to be opening old sores 21 years down the line. Then, as the last notes fade out, a roar of anticipatory bedlam, bedlam, bedlam. What an atmosphere.

Moore and Seeler, the captains, shake hands and exchange plaques and pennants. Bobby wins the toss and elects to defend the goal England picked for the warm up. The spare balls are kicked away, and the two teams line up ready to go.

The Germans looked the more dangerous in the opening minutes, Haller and Held leading menacing sorties and Seeler using his head to good advantage. Haller shoots West Germany into a 12th minute lead following Wilson’s misdirected header. He thought scoring the opening goal entitled him to keep the match ball – that was the custom in German football – but there was someone else who wanted that ball too.

England, behind for the first time in the tournament, equalised six minutes later. Hurst positioned himself perfectly to head home Moore’s quick free-kick. The German defence gave little away in the second period and only 12 minutes remained when Peters scored after Hurst’s centre had struck a defender and looped invitingly into the air. From that range Peters could hardly miss.

As England hung on for the final whistle, Jackie Charlton was adjudged, harshly, to have fouled on the edge of the box. The free-kick, blasted at the wall by Emmerich, appeared to strike Schnellinger’s hand before rolling on for Weber to shoot, almost in slow motion, past Banks’ desperate lunge. Gutted. 2-2.

Alf Ramsey’s speech at full-time  – You’ve won the World Cup once, now, go and win it againwas akin to Henry V at Agincourt. England looked fitter and fresher in extra time and continued to play with confidence and composure. Hurst scored with a drive on the turn, which hit the underside of the bar and bounced over the line with Tilkowski, the flamboyant German keeper, well beaten.

The goal was disputed by the Germans – and still is. The Swiss referee, Gottfried Dienst, asked the nearer linesman Mr. Bakhramov from the USSR (what is now Azerbaijan), and between them they agreed that it was a goal. Of course it was Gottfried.

German heads dropped as they lost their concentration, such that with the last kick of the match, Hurst completed a personal triumph by scoring with a firm left-footer, cheeks sucked in as he lashed the ball forward. Proper goal. Apparently some of the crowd were on the pitch. And he got to keep the match ball. Not bad for a bloke from Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester.

A day to remember, even if like me, it’s from videos and news cuttings. England lined up: Banks, Cohen, Wilson, Stiles, Charlton (J), Moore, Ball, Charlton (R), Hurst, Peters, Hunt.

We all want to be in a winning team, getting the results and enjoying the success. But what qualities do you see in that 1966 England team that you can learn from for building a startup team? Moving from your MVP to pivot and scaling, startup teams often are built quickly and have to come together to collaborate.

Research into team behaviour reveals an interesting paradox: team characteristics of size, virtual distribution, diversity and specialism in membership, are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done. To put it another way, the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success.

So how can we strengthen a startup’s ability to perform complex collaborative tasks to maximise the effectiveness of size and diversity, while minimising the disadvantages posed by their structure, composition and individuality? Research by Gratton & Erickson, and Newton offers insight into how to maximise collaborative team performance.

In the uncertainty of a startup, we need all hands on deck, we need people to own their work, not just rent a space on the organisation chart. We need everyone to be committed and engaged, building a culture of ownership where everyone is inspired to think and act like partners in the enterprise, and not just hired hands. Collaborative teamwork releases the synergies and efficiencies – many hands make light work.

However, collaboration isn’t quite as straightforward as you think. In his research entitled Six Common Misperceptions about Teamwork, Professor J R Hackman, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University, highlights a number of issues. Whilst teamwork and collaboration are critical to achievement in any organisation, his research not only affirmed that idea but also surfaced a number of mistaken beliefs about teamwork that can sidetrack productive collaboration. I summarise them here:

Belief: Harmony helps.

Reality: Quite the opposite, research shows conflict, when well managed and focused on a team’s objectives, can generate more creative solutions than in conflict-free groups. Creative tension can be good for a team. Research on symphony orchestras shows that slightly ‘grumpy’ orchestras played better as ensembles than those whose members worked together harmoniously. The tension stirs a reaction, creating personal and collective energy to make it happen.

Belief: It’s good to mix it up.

Reality: The longer members stay together as an intact 
group, the better they do. As unreasonable as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it is a rugby team or a fire brigade unit, teams that stay together longer, play together better. New members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team, without them, and whilst a stable team risks becoming complacent, new talent can be disruptive.

Research into the achievement of Michelin Stars by top-notch restaurant kitchens illustrate this. Chefs of all ranks require a number of months to fully become in tune with the workflow, menu, layout and systems in a new kitchen. In addition to the more formal, structured aspects of working in the kitchen, they must also work to find their place within the team, to prove themselves and become a productive member of the unit.

In good kitchens new chefs also receive a degree of training specific to their position. All of this takes time and uses up kitchen resources, therefore when the average tenure is low, the return on investment on chefs is low. Accordingly, high turnover means that many kitchens are being held back as their team never fully matures to a point of achieving their optimal results and an intuitive collaboration that top performance requires achieving the Michelin star rating.

Belief: Bigger is better.

Reality: Excessive size is one of the most common impediments to effective collaboration. The larger the group, the higher the likelihood of loafing and free riding, and the more effort it takes to keep activities coordinated. Small teams are more efficient, the sense of camaraderie and team spirit of a tightly-knit team can often leverage a greater degree of output – it’s the David v Goliath situation, and research shows the Davids win in 29% of situations when facing a Goliath who has ten-times the scale of resources – underdogs win more often than you think because of the collaborative spirit and energy.

Belief: Face-to-face interaction is passé.

Reality: Teams working remotely are at a considerable disadvantage. There really are benefits to sizing up your teammates face-to-face. Organisations that rely heavily on virtual or distributed teams have found that it is well worth the effort, time and cost to get members together when the team is launched, again around the midpoint of the team’s work, and yet again when the work has been completed for shared reflection and learning.

Belief: It all depends on the leader.

Reality: The hands-on activities of leaders do make a difference, but the most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves. Research suggests that condition-creating accounts for about 60% of the variation in how well a team eventually performs; that the quality of the team launch accounts for another 30%; and that real-time coaching accounts for only about 10%. Leaders are important in collaborative work, but not in the ways we usually think. Creating the conditions for self-managed teams should be the aim of a leader.

Belief: Teamwork is serendipity.

Reality: The best leaders provide a clear statement of what the team’s goals are, and they make sure that the team has the resources and support needed to succeed. Back to the kitchen, and the head chef will always play a pivotal role in dictating the kitchen’s success, however it is interesting to note the importance on how well the team are formed. Staff are hired based on their experience, skill level etc., but less importance is placed on how effective they will be as part of the team.

It’s clear for startups that collaboration is the best way to work because together people have a combined set of skills to respond to any challenge thrown at the enterprise. With pressure on cashflow, a startup needs to be greater than the sum of its parts and leverage beyond actual headcount.

Collaboration is also important in a startup not just because it’s a better way to work, but also to learn. Learning to collaborate is part of equipping a startup for problem solving, innovation and life-long learning in an ever-changing networked economy. Life is not a solo act, we all need to assemble around us the people who can make a difference for each other.

So, pause for a moment and reflect back on ’66. England, an outstanding team of individuals – not a team of outstanding individuals – everyone played their part, and everyone was over the moon, a genuine collaborative effort. As Shakespeare said ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’, and that joined-up mentality can be the difference in getting a startup off the ground.

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