WSU may be the best developmental engineering program in the Western US. Nowhere else will you find a more rural Research 1 class institution that is typically viewed as the #2 school in the state. These two defining traits are directly aligned with our Land-Grant founding mission to bridge the technoeconomic urban versus rural divide. Where some schools just process through people who were already performers, WSU must reap the seeds we sow. Said simply, we’re going to do our best to develop you into your best. Since we’re the only liquid hydrogen research focused lab in US academia, everyone coming in the door is a beginner. As a result, development is the most reliable way to get brilliant students and build high-performing teams. The best people lead to the best technologies, best startups, best research, etc. It’s in this virtuous cycle of development with high-performing people and high-performing teams where I’ve made a mistake over the years.

I used to search for and identify strengths and complimentary character sets to form teams, a tactic common in industry. I’d try to build out teams like the crews of Star Trek — leaders/liaisons, theorists, builders, communicators, experienced sages, etc. Looking back on a decade of this approach, we’ve had high performing teams that won just about every competition we entered. While everyone felt valued and were contributing, this team-based approach led to co-dependent individuals. Everyone was relying on someone else to get anything done. Although we had a number of multi-faceted individuals coming into the lab, we were doing little to further the development of multi-talented individuals. The individuals on these successful teams were then led to believe that this was the best they could do and that they’d found their roles/niches. When I’d come in to show how much more there was to learn and improve upon, I’d encounter resistance contrary to our developmental identity.

Now I search for weaknesses and developmental needs to form teams. I’ll intentionally form imbalanced teams that can’t work. Because we’ve built a culture of working on the personal challenges and practicing overcoming our weaknesses, this is now expected. Members of the imbalanced teams must then change to become the more broadly talented individual needed by the team, and the rest of society. Instead of waiting until out in industry to have this epiphany, I’m finding that many of the students are starting to display the continuous learning mind-set typical of professionals well before graduation.

These two dramatically different approaches to team formation are actually complimentary: the developmental approach builds better individuals, these individuals then form better professional teams. The key differentiator that I’d missed before was knowing whether the primary role for a team was development or performance. Looking back on my time as a collegiate football player, and seeing the persistent struggles in development of academia, I see how this development <-> performance dichotomy was intentionally embedded in the athletics culture.

It just took a decade of fumbling around with this to finally understand that as long as the people being developed see their goal as performance, and the performers see their goal as development, the virtuous cycle will continue.