Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People rarely invent something all on their own. Instead it happens as a result of teamwork. And the best teams are also specific teams. That is, they have specific qualities that make them successful—qualities that might surprise you.
I spoke with bestselling author Shane Snow, author of Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart, all about what the best teams look like—teams that actually have breakthroughs—and what makes teams break down. Snow also shares interesting insights about his own creative process along with how a team approach was vital to making Dream Teams into an excellent read and resource, and much more.
Q: What inspired you to write a book about dream teams?
A: It started with “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” You know that part where Dick Van Dyke goes into the garage, makes some clanking sounds, and comes out having invented a flying car? I’d been thinking about how that’s never how innovation happens. Nothing we invent or accomplish is truly a solo project—even if we’re doing most of our work alone at a desk.
But then I started puzzling over a paradox, which is that the more people there are in a group, the more likely it is to slow down, break down, or change the mission from accomplishing something to foiling the other members of the group. Once I started seeing this, I saw it everywhere. My personal relationships, my company, Congress. You name it.
But then every once in a while, you see a group whose members magically seem to get much, much better together. I wanted to know what made the difference, and why that was so rare. And so four years later with Dream Teams, here we are!
Q: What are some of the misconceptions so many of us hold about what makes a successful, innovative team?
A: We get a few big things completely backwards. Among the most surprising to me, though, is it turns out that the key to an innovative team is not getting along well. That’s sort of a double entendre, so I’ll explain it a different way: A team that “gets along” is not likely going to be that innovative. A team that doesn’t get along is either going to be awful or amazing.
The key is doing a good job of not getting along. The magical formula is an all-out intellectual battle combined with complete personal and emotional support and safety. Dissent, disagreement, debate, anything that leads to cognitive friction—that’s what pushes a group of people further than its smartest member can go on her own.
Q: What tends to make teams break down and collaborations fail?
A: Ironically, the biggest leading indicator that a team is going to break down is not when it fights. It’s when it stops talking about things that are important. When it avoids the tough or painful issues in an effort to have “peace.”
Q: If someone is gathering a team of people, what do you suggest they look for in order to create a team that will be more likely to have a breakthrough?
A: You want to have a combination of diverse perspectives and heuristics. Two heads are only going to be smarter than one if those heads approach problem-solving differently!
Q: When researching and writing your book, what surprised you the most about successful teams?
A: I was surprised to discover just how much of a role intellectual humility plays in successful team leadership. When we strip away personality and external things, the greatest leaders in the world were not strong, stoic, unflinching tough guys. They were women and men who were willing to change their minds, even when that could be embarrassing. They were willing to lead from the shadows if that was the best thing for their team.
My favorite example of this I found is this guy named Valery Vasiliev, the captain of the long-running Soviet National Hockey team dynasty. This was the one sports team story I put in the book. Vasiliev was team captain, but he was hardly the best player. He wasn’t even one of the names fans really knew. But he would do anything for the team’s success, sacrificing his own stats, fame, playing time, whatever it was. His team members would do anything for the team because of his humility.
Q: Writing a book is a huge endeavor, and this is your second book. What have you learned about your own creative process, as far as what works and what doesn’t work in creating a valuable read?
A: There’s so much to say here, so I’ll just keep it at this: One of my favorite editors once told me that great writing is 1/3 research, 1/3 thinking, and 1/3 writing. I took that to heart this time. Two years of preparation and outlining and agonizing over the concepts and theses and raw materials made the writing process go so well when I got down to it. I wrote the actual manuscript in 2 months.
Of course, I had 9 months of self-doubt and revisions after that. But unlike last time, I felt like I knew what I was going to write by the time I started putting sentences down, rather than figuring it out as I wrote.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about dream teams or the creative process?
A: Even though writing a book is mostly an isolated exercise, I think Dream Teams turned out so well because I invited so many people into the process. One of the best things I did was ask a bunch of people to read draft chapters and, instead of telling me what they thought I should change, just indicate what parts they got bored at.
I could figure out who I needed to put my head together with to solve the problems with the manuscript, but I needed all the help I could get in identifying the problems in the first place. I also got a lot of great input from sensitivity readers—people whose job was to troll me and nitpick any little phrase that might distract someone or say something I inadvertently don’t want to say. Sometimes this feedback was frustrating to hear, but because I invited it, it became easier to swallow. And the book got better because of it all!
Shane Snow is a science and business journalist and the co-founder of Contently, one of Inc’s fastest growing companies and Crain’s and Ad Age’s best places to work in America. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Wired, The Washington Post, Fast Company, Time, and GQ. His first book, Smartcuts, has made him a highly sought-after speaker around the world on innovation and lateral thinking. His second book is Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart. For more information see, http://www.shanesnow.com/ and @shanesnow.