Building great teams

I’m making slow progress through “The Innovators” by Walter Isaacson. The book is a nice walk down technology memory lane starting from when Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace first conceptualized the computer.

The learning from the book that stands out most to me is the sheer importance of great teams in every technological innovation. Media and culture celebrate great individuals but history makes it apparent that it is teams that succeed. Taking the Tolstoy logic of “all happy families look the same,” I noticed 2 common traits of great teams through the book so far –

1. A mesh of individual and collective genius. Every team somehow managed to encourage individual skill while ensuring a collective ownership of the end product. Some of the biggest breakthroughs were indeed made by individuals. But, they wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the rest of the team. That’s a powerful idea for us as team members and team leaders. We need to be able to encourage individual skill while, perhaps, making sure everyone on the team has a collective ambition. The collective ambition is what allows for true collaboration.

2. Complementary skills, similar dreams and a lot of trust. Every great team had a mix of personalities with complementary skills – the founding team of Intel is a great example of this with Robert Noyce being the visionary, Gordon Moore being the innovator and Andy Grove being the manager who got things done. Despite these differences, they were united by similar dreams. When dreams or values differed, these teams disintegrated. But, when they aligned, it gave rise to great trust and chemistry stemming from a deep understanding of each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

For me, it goes back to the idea that teams are not people who work together, teams are people who trust each other. Yes, we all work in teams in our jobs and assignments, but, how many of those are real teams? How many times do we, as team members, make an earnest effort to get to know each other? We don’t need to be leaders to build great teams. We just need to care enough about collective success and want to really get to know our teammates. Understanding follows knowledge and trust follows understanding.

The days of the lone inventor are long gone. Science and business innovation builds on those of previous generations. And, it is my belief that, today, more than ever, the future belongs to those who can build great teams.