You’ve Got A Team Full Of People As Smart As Crick And Watson. So Why Does It Perform Like Dumb and Dumber?
“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.” – Edward Abbey
While sitting in his boardroom a frustrated executive blurted out to me, “Some of the brightest people in our industry sit around this table. But you’d never know it from our performance. It’s embarrassing. What the hell is wrong with my team?”
He was wondering, in essence, “Why do I have a dumb team full of smart people?”
It’s a problem that frustrates managers everywhere: teams full of brilliant individuals often fail to add up to the sum of their parts. As the executive pointed out, they may be full of bright, well-intentioned people, but judging by their performance you’d be hard pressed to prove it. They’re staffed smart but they operate dumb. It’s a conundrum reflected in everything from derailed strategies, bad decisions, feeble meetings, muddled change, stunted projects, toxic conflicts, gross misunderstandings, and lost opportunities.
Dumb Team Syndrome (DTS)
When I say a team is dumb, I’m not suggesting it’s full of stupid people, but that their collective behavior renders them less effective than expected given the caliber of people on the team. Individual team members can be as brilliant as Crick and Watson yet still work together like Dumb and Dumber – a syndrome that manifests some or all of the following team characteristics:
- It underperforms. Weighed down by defensiveness and dysfunction, the team is unable to align their smart intentions with their actual behavior. An executive team at a large financial services firm, for example, wanted to successfully institute a breakthrough strategy, but fierce infighting and Machiavellian politics crippled the team’s ability to enact it.
- It’s blind.They have lots of blind spots so they’re often caught off-guard by events they should have seen coming. This blindness is often caused by two things: their defensive, anti-learning behavior prevents them from exploring different points of view and limits their access to critical information.
- It’s out of balance.They spend little time working in that productive conversational space I refer to as the “sweet spot” where candor and curiosity are in balance, and where the exchange of ideas is open-minded, responsibly rigorous, evidence-based, and learning-focused. In the very circumstances team members most need to maintain this precious equilibrium they tend to lose it by dropping candor and becoming timid and cautious, or by dropping curiosity and growing arrogant and argumentative.
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- It’s miserable.Working in a project, team, or organization that isn’t living up to its potential is a discouraging, stressful, frustrating experience.
- It’s over-confident.Team members are over-confident in their team’s abilities because they focus on their individual abilities and assume that will lead to collective performance. “We’re a bunch of really smart, committed people so of course our team will perform brilliantly.” The inability to see the difference between having smart people on a team and smart team performance results in a Dunning-Kruger Effect, a phenomenon in which incompetent people are blind to their incompetence so they actually believe they are more competent than other people. In a similar way, a dumb team is often too dumb to know it’s dumb.
- It’s stuck.Thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect there’s also a disturbing gap between a team’s ability to work and learn together and the demands of the predicament it’s facing. Why? Hindered by the flawed assumption that they’re smarter than they really are, they put little effort into getting smarter. They respond poorly to unfamiliar situations because they’re anemic learners in situations where robust learning is needed.
- It knows.Team members often know there’s a problem but they don’t know what is causing it (much less what do to about it). So they usually just blame each other, outside circumstances, or both – reactions that merely exacerbate their predicament.
- It shows.A dumb team can’t hide its problems, so it’s reputation suffers because it’s perceived as dysfunctional by other people and groups.
What’s the flaw? How is it possible that a team’s collective IQ can be so dramatically lower than the sum of it parts? What dumbs them down? What do they lack as a group that impedes their ability to turn their individual capabilities into collective performance?
What lacking is a pivotal competence that helps people turn their intelligence, education, experience, and knowledge into collaborative learning and team effectiveness. This missing piece of the puzzle is conversational capacity – the ability to orchestrate constructive, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects and in challenging circumstances.
It’s a make-or-break capability. A team with high conversational capacity can work smart and perform effectively even when dealing with their most troublesome issues. A team lacking that capacity, by contrast, can turn dumb and perform poorly in the face of even a petty disagreement.
It’s not as easy as it sounds
Answering the question, “How smart is my team?” is not as simple adding up the IQ scores of all the people in the group. It’s not the sum of the IQs that matters most, but how well the people can use their individual IQs to foster collaborative learning when it counts.
Having sharp people seated around the table, in other words, is only half the battle. We also need the ability to access and utilize the smart ideas in their heads, to orchestrate conversations that pull every mind into the service of making the most informed and effective choices possible. Conversational capacity, therefore, is a pivotal variable for high performance teams, for it creates a multiplier effect – a team is smarter than the sum of its parts because, working together to make sense of even the toughest problems, it allows its members to think in more nimble and expansive ways.
There is also an important message here for individual members of any team or organization: to be highly effective you need to do more than just show up smart. It doesn’t matter if you’re a raging genius with an IQ of 200 if your behavior pushes 1000 IQ points out of every meeting. Far from adding value, you dumb down the group by 800 points. So an essential aspect of effective teamwork is participating in meetings, decisions, and conversations in a way that builds the conversational capacity of the team and pulls the smarts of everyone into the process.
Why does this matter?
Our world grows more turbulent, complex, and unpredictable by the day. Building teams that thrive in today’s environment takes more than just getting the smartest and most committed people to join our cause. We must also create a disciplined culture that allows smart people to work and learn together in a consistent, deliberate, and highly productive way.
A foundational aspect of such an environment is high conversational capacity. Building this capacity is an essential aspect of team and organizational development, because if we’re not investing in our team’s ability to balance candor and curiosity under pressure, when the next adaptive challenge inevitably bangs on our door we’ll find ourselves ill-equipped to answer it.
Questions to consider:
- What are the big changes and challenges you and your team are facing? Is your team as “smart” as it needs to be to address them well?
- What can you begin doing to build the conversational capacity of your team so you and your colleagues are working smart, fast, and together?