… build them!

Talk to any researcher and they’ll go on ad nauseum to explain their philosophy for building brilliant teams. It’s just the next step after how to reliably get brilliant students. So why am I adding to the noise with this post? Because when you’re in the middle of building something great, it’s easy to get side tracked and forget your core values and principles; whatever they be.

Think back about the amazing teams you’ve been fortunate to be a part of over the years. Several key factors were likely involved:

  1. Contrasting and complimentary characters — think the A team, Star Trek, X-men, you get the point — we all have our unique set of strengths and abilities. In my field of engineering research the core character set is much like the crew of the Starship Enterprise: the driven leader (Captain Kirk), the stoic smart one (Spock), the handy utilitarian (Scotty), the stubborn sage (Bones), and the master communicator (Ohura). Most brilliant teams are probably a distribution between 3-8 core contributing members with the optimal likely being 5 — which is probably an artifact of how our brains process communication streams. We can only hold so much ram for characters/roles/functions before we forget and side groups start forming. The goal is a gestault team — one perceived to have collectively emerged as something different, and typically better, than the sum of it’s parts. I’ve seen it happen when teams are self aware, empathic, performing in their element, and laser focused. It’s what brilliant teams do.
  2. Focus and pressure to achieve a simple, common goal — doesn’t get much simpler than beet the bad guy and save the world. Win the championship! The common thing in academia and US governance is to waterboard teams with many statistical performance benchmarks. NOISE! Pretty soon the team’s lost site of the original simple goal. Performance indicators matter, just indirectly. Administrators often talk in terms of general performance indicators to the team out of convenience, which causes the individuals of the team to think the statistics are the point. Then the organization starts devolving into the metrics game while failing in it’s core goal. This is more of a problem for administrators. How do you as an an individual contribute to the common goal? Just keep tenaciously improving yourself and your ability to fulfill your role.
  3. Carefully managing expectations — ever heard the story of the team that nobody expected to do anything, only for this underdog to triumph over insurmountable odds? It’s an age old story we’re suckers for, likely because it’s a key indicator of change – which is amazing. That said, how many teams declare their goal to win the championship on day one? How many faculty declare their goal to get tenure on day one? How about we manage our expectations a little and just expect to do our best, evaluate, and continuously improve? Short of cheating or quitting that’s really about all a team or an individual can do.

There really isn’t any other secret to the success of brilliant teams than to work as fast as you can. Therein lies the magic of brilliant teams — they are fun, engaging, and often life changing. They weren’t born or bought that way. They had a great set of initial conditions and became brilliant over time. If you’re already on a brilliant team enjoy them while you have them. In the interim, better start building!