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

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.

Teamwork – individual commitment to a group effort

Brasil 2014 was the World Cup of the individual, but Germany showed us the power of the team game. Superbly drilled as a team, tactically astute and individually disciplined, they provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 demolition of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final, and a cohesive team performance to clinch victory in the final against Argentina.

With teams carried by one creative talisman, with individual talent seen a potential match winners – Lionel Messi, James Rodríguez, Neymar and even the Netherlands were reliant on the pace of Arjen Robben – whilst Germany had talented individuals, it was the relentless team performance that won.

The 1970 competition in Mexico was the first World Cup I recall watching on television. Broadcast live by satellite and in grainy images, I recall Brazil, golden shirts shimmering in the sunshine, playing a brand of football barely imaginable to British eyes. It was slick, skilful and joyous, a team game played and won by talented individuals.

However, despite individual talent, football has become increasingly systematised, sides playing less as collections of individuals and more as a unit. This mechanisation was no less beautiful than the previous style but it was a different kind of beauty – the collective play of the Dutch and ‘Total Football’ rather than the dribbling and flair of a Pelé.

With statistical analysis and improved understanding of team strategies, structures and tactics, a pressing-style emerged.This has made the game more tactically sophisticated and interesting, but also reliant on consistency of team selection as players fit into a style of play and regime, building the mutual understanding necessary for the integration this approach demands.

When two high-pressing teams meet, the result can be stalemate, the game squeezed into a narrow sliver either side of halfway. In this World Cup, though, the early round games were often filled with glorious anarchy and, with defences less rigid than usual, skilful individuals were able to exert a powerful influence.

Some games were a throwback to the romantic fervour of a bygone age, a return to the playground style of attack-and-defence, suggesting that the spirit of Brazil at work – that everybody had caught the jogo bonito attitude. However, in the later stages where the best teams came head-to-head in more competitive games, the counter-counter patterns re-emerged, and even in the individuals’ World Cup, the system came to assert itself.

It was also noticeable that consistency of team selection – an obvious characteristic of successful teams – became a defined feature, where a small number of individuals working together on a regular basis in a defined system were successful. This counters the assertion that big squads are needed – it’s the most consistent team that wins, collaboration, empathy and familiarity outdo a wider pool of talent, with focus on team spirit.

Bigger teams don’t mean better when it comes to work either, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon famously coined this with the two pizza rule. According to Bezos, the ideal is the ‘two pizza team’: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.

Working with small teams, they often wish for more brains on deck to work on projects, build more complex features, and talk with more customers. It’s just natural to believe that larger teams means you’ll get more stuff, and better stuff done, and much more swiftly – but the research shows that throwing more people at a problem is one of the most common productivity traps to fall into.

People in smaller teams are far more personally productive. As group size rises, all sorts of issues spring up. Individual performance levels diminish and people start to grow less engaged. So while larger teams may get more done altogether, it’s happening at a rate lower than the sum of individual efforts. Even if more people provide a greater pool of resource, they also require greater amounts of coordination and management, to the point where size becomes an impediment.

Forget herding cats, herding humans is a challenge enough, having to grapple with three hidden costs that start to climb with team size: coordination costs, motivation costs, and relational costs.

1. Coordination Cost

The late Harvard psychologist, Richard Hackman, bluntly stated ‘big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time’. What Hackman found is that it is not the number of people but the links between them that accumulate when group size increases. The coordination cost proliferates with every new addition, and management is a project of handling the links.  His formula shows how the links grow at an accelerating rate:

Number of links = n(n-1)/2, where n = the number of people

To put this more simply:

  • A start-up of 7 people has 21 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 12 has 66 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 60 has 1770 connection points to maintain.
  • An enterprise of 6000 has 17.997m connection points to maintain.

Each additional person increases total productivity of the team but at a decreasing rate, which means if you were the third member to join a team, you made a bigger impact on its productivity than if you were the thirtieth.

Every steep jump in links also produces a steep jump in the potential for mismanagement and miscommunication. Delays emerge from the snowballing time and effort required to keep everyone informed, coordinated and integrated. Adding human-power to a late project just makes it later.

Research shows that the magic number for the most effective teams varies between four to nine, and more often six or seven. What’s clear is that if you want your herd of humans to get more stuff done, avoid having your team numbers hit double digits.

2. Motivation Cost

The mere perception that you’re in a group can deplete your own motivation and effort, a phenomenon known as ‘social loafing’, fear of getting lost in a crowd and depleting the strength of relationships.

A study by Latan demonstrated the social loafing effect with groups as small as six. Participants wearing blindfolds and noise-masking headphones had to shout as loud as they could. Everyone made less noise in groups compared to when they shouted alone.

While the total sound produced was louder, it didn’t grow in proportion with the group size. People in teams of six shouted at 36% of their full individual capacity. When researchers controlled for any possible coordination loss by having participants shout in concert when they were actually shouting alone, people still didn’t perform at full capacity, producing 74% of their full potential sound.

Another explanation for this phenomenon is Ringelmann’s rope pulling experiment, which shows clearly how input per head decreases as group sizes get bigger.

Ringelmann tested the effort capable of being exerted by seven individuals, on individual rope pulling tests. He then put them into teams, from two to seven, and found the collective output fell from 100% (baseline for individual effort), to just 55% per individual when seven formed a team – an attrition rate of 45%.

Social loafing is a feedback problem, when groups get larger, you experience less social pressure and feel less responsibility because your performance becomes difficult to correctly assess amidst a crowd. Human nature makes us try less hard, as we think our colleagues’ effort will compensate. The reality is a serious degradation in output as team size increases.

While initially you might not be cognizant of social loafing, that unconscious disengagement can quickly morph into purely selfish, self-interested behaviour, a fall in commitment to the team, a lack of intimacy and active disengagement. If you don’t feel like you matter, or have to make a difference, then what’s the point of trying so hard?

3. Relational Loss

University of San Diego Professor of Management, Jennifer Mueller uncovered ‘relational loss’ as the third element of why individuals’ efficiency decreases in larger teams.

Relational loss is when you feel as if you are receiving less and less support as teams get larger. This includes emotional support, assistance in performing work and overcoming setbacks. You become isolated, and don’t feel you have a shoulder to lean on or someone to help you out of a jam.

When you’re in a team, you regularly interact and spend time with each other every day. Mueller suspected that the deteriorating quality of those multiplying links contributed to weaker individual performance – just think about how the more connections you make on social networks, the weaker those ties usually are. People’s perception of support decreased as team size increased and this relational loss accounted for poorer individual performance.

The price of relational loss is paid with feelings of isolation, which harms cognitive ability and causes poorer performance. Mueller found that in larger teams, people were lost, had no identity with the team, and disconnected.

So what tools and techniques can we utilise to overcome the three risks of dysfunctional and unproductive teams? Here are some suggestions:

Figure out and apply the right communication tools The cult of productivity is often inwardly focused on the personal, while neglecting the needs of the collective. Find and use team based communication tools and processes that lower coordination cost and save people time. Focus on team productivity not personal.

This may mean finding opportunities for collaboration, apps or changing how you run meetings. Create meaning and connection through an adaptable cadence of communication rather than causing frustration and guzzling time. The agile practice of daily stand-ups is a highly effective tool for this.

Break teams down into smaller units Breaking teams down into units where everyone knows their colleagues name, role and personality makes common sense. The research highlighted earlier shows smaller teams are more effective where personal relationships are closer, there is intimacy and camaraderie, which creates a greater sense of belonging and purpose. Enabling rapport is a great way of improving productivity.

Be adventurous with your office configuration Find new ways to create opportunities for connection and personal interfaces, Skype and Google hangouts are effective for virtual teams, but having a café style area in the office for team conversations creates greater social meaning and also an opportunity for more intense and direct interaction.

Become radically transparent Transparency helps prevent behaviours such as social loafing and free-riding, which rely on the fact that there’s somewhere easy to hide, and power plays, which rely on hoarding knowledge like an information miser. Ensure all your team are highly effective communicators and socially comfortable with total transparency – half your job besides doing your work is communicating to colleagues about it, make knowledge a team asset, accessible, visible and a collective responsibility, chronicling decisions and processes, and being inclusive. Sharing daily learnings is a positive, protective shield against relational loss.

Give frequent feedback to each other Don’t isolate feedback to some twice-a-year supervisory formality, get the conversation flowing among everyone in your team to help strengthen the connections between individual effort and performance, which get swallowed up in the crowd through motivational loss. Make feedback meaningful.

Ask questions, show your teammates gratitude and appreciation, and respond to distress signals. Creating a high frequency feedback culture, where there are daily discussions on what everyone gets done and monthly one-on-ones, helps everyone connect, understand other’s issues, and be better at their own jobs.

But back to Sunday’s game. It was nerve-rattling, energy sapping and hard-fought. Despite the dearth of goals, there was never a dull moment inside the Maracanã Stadium and the match proved worthy of a World Cup Final. It was only during the second half of extra time that striker Mario Götze, who only joined the game in the 88th minute, scored the game’s only goal.

Mario Götze’s goal was of irresistible elegance, the crowning glory for the tournament’s best team, the one which had always sought the initiative. The German coaching team’s tactical flexibility, whether it was fast vertical play or patient ball retention,  always found the right answer for every tactical challenge. Joachim Löw played a crucial part in this triumph – he always had the right team strategy, right team structure, right team processes – and the right team players.

‘It doesn’t matter at all whether we have the best individual players or not,’ said German captain Phillip Lahm, ‘you have to have the best team. We had unbelievable coherence, cohesion and closeness’.

It’s a strange exclamation mark at the end of a tournament of free and flighty moments, from Neymar’s and Messi’s flitters of brilliance and after all the positive and negative passion and emotion, that the winner is an effort of pure planning and the fruits of the intricate and organised system they put in place.

Even in the chances they created, you got the sense of contrast on offer. While Lionel Messi provided the natural and the unexpected, Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos provided the learned and practiced, and for all the Germans’ movement, intricate passing and attacking that was evident from the early stages as they prodded and probed at the Argentinian massed defence, there was a sense of training ground planning to much of it. A winning team on top of their game.

That’s not to take away from their talent and threat, but it’s a misplaced narrative we are left with. They are the world’s best team, with some of the world’s best players – but they don’t have the best individuals. Other teams now must take note of how Germany created their success as they look to beat them. For business, the lessons of effective teamwork and relentless pursuit of the team goal was there to be seen.