The Key Ingredients of a Successful Team

I was recently having a long conversation with a colleague, who was passionately outlining a new solution to an old problem, when my cellphone died. I was traveling, and to continue our discussion, I had to walk across the airport to a public pay phone. I kept adding coins to keep the call going. The conversation ended once my colleague convinced me that even though existing solutions would work, a novel approach would result in an exponential performance improvement.

The episode triggered an interesting thought. The pay phone represents the archetypal machine; it responds predictably. You insert coins and the line comes alive; you add coins and it continues to work. But that doesn't quite work with people, does it? My colleague, for instance, was driven by the excitement of trying a new solution, not by persisting with an existing one.

For over two decades, I've tried to understand what drives teams. Conventional theories never work; I find that the secret sauce for a successful team has three ingredients:

1. A big challenge: The fun is in the chase. That mightn't be true in the context of courtship, but it's certainly true of work. When people face big, hairy and audacious goals, searching for solutions becomes exciting, even obsessive. Google's mission statement is bold but simple: "Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible, and useful." It has done well by chasing that incredibly bold goal.

2. People with a passion to perform: It's fun to watch a group that is brainstorming. The excitement and restlessness in people who are trying to find solutions to vexing problems is priceless; that can't be replaced by expertise or experience. People fuel incredible energy, as teams go all out to find solutions. They spare little thought for the rewards; they're absorbed in overcoming the challenges they face.

3. Space to excel:The third crucial element is the space to innovate, to be able to make mistakes and start over. As children, we may have heard the fable about the spider that successfully climbed a wall by morning after falling to the ground all night long. We are all spider-people in that sense — ordinary people with extraordinary powers to succeed. A team leader who can provide the right amount of room for experimentation can ignite the power of passion and generate miraculous results.

If people see a challenge in what they are doing, have the passion to perform, and have the space to create magic, they will. Research challenges the assumption that people will perform only if they're provided financial incentives. In this fascinating video, Daniel Pink, who wrote Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, lists more than one study that dispels traditional carrot-and-stick wisdom. Pink believes that executives would do well to understand the importance of autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose in driving success.

The drummer boys creating music today aren't waiting for anyone to wind them up with the key of monetary rewards; they're passionate, self-driven, and often, self-organized. Isn't it time we plugged into them?

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