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How to create a dream team: It's not just about diversity

If only every company could have a flagship product to propel what might otherwise be an ordinary company into one that is capable of spurring extraordinary developments, stretching our imagination about the possibilities of what can be accomplished. IBM could easily have been a has-been in this era but the five-year transformation of its cognitive platform Watson, of game show legend, has been leveraged by 80,000 developers for nuanced artificial intelligence in profound, meaningful ways tackling solutions ranging from security to medical applications.

Although a plethora of innovative ideas and technologies are hatched here in Silicon Valley, mind-boggling leaps forward occur in many venues, locations and with diverse groups of people. One of the common underpinnings to successful innovation is inclusive collaboration across disparate teams, far easier said than done.

To uncover what make a high-performing team stellar, Google exhaustively studied the effectiveness of its work groups, searching for common denominators in individual traits and skills. After examining the dynamics and results of over 180 teams, Google figured that the mix of personality attributes per se were not the key to success. Rather, group culture and norms turned out to be far more impactful. In particular, psychological safety determined whether team members felt secure suggesting novel approaches and ideas, without fear of embarrassment or retribution from co-workers. The clarity of goals and as well as dependability of team members to execute high-quality work mattered more than individual characteristics. Lastly, the most successful teams were working on projects that they felt really mattered and that were important personally to each team member. It almost seems too easy. Granted, Google’s hiring process screens for top-performing talent so it’s safe to assume that on the whole its team members are competent, achievement-driven people who can be trusted to deliver high-quality work.

The psychology safety component, then, is trickier and certainly the most compelling aspect of this finding. To establish and maintain a level of comfort, successful team members share something they took a risk on, reveal something no one at work might know about or otherwise establish an emotional connection. Social sensitivity and conversational turn-taking matter a great deal in making these teams click.

Safety is not the only factor in making teams effective. Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky found in his research that in the beginning stages of idea generation, a flat organizational structure lends itself more easily to collaboration. Hierarchy hurts with complex decision-making in dynamic environments, he found. Later on, when it comes to evaluating ideas and implementing ideas, a more top-down approach is more effective when teams are interdependent and the choices of one affect others. Managing teams through this transition, then, becomes critical.

It’s been a long-entrenched notion that the more diversity in a team, the more innovative results might be expected, but here we find that even in the field of creativity and innovation, listening and responding to others sensitively matters more, particularly in the early stages of idea generation.

Next time you are in charge of a team, learn from Google and set group norms to ensure that all participants get equal air time and that an emotional connection is encouraged and supported. And, manage through the transition to a more vertical structure for implementation planning.

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