The Art of Teaming With Others

My first nomination for Best 2016 Long Form Journalism piece is in, “What Google Learned In Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” by Charles Duhigg.

Crystal clear and filled to the brim with trenchant insights into why most teams usually flounder. In short, Google researchers found individuals on the most productive teams “spoke in roughly the same proportion” as one another and were skilled at “intuiting how others felt”. Furthermore, the greater a team’s perceived psychological safety, measured by how comfortable team members felt being themselves, the greater that team’s “collective intelligence”.

Take Duhigg’s test:

Imagine you have been invited to join one of two groups.

Team A is composed of people who are all exceptionally smart and successful. When you watch a video of this group working, you see professionals who wait until a topic arises in which they are expert, and then they speak at length, explaining what the group ought to do. When someone makes a side comment, the speaker stops, reminds everyone of the agenda and pushes the meeting back on track. This team is efficient. There is no idle chitchat or long debates. The meeting ends as scheduled and disbands so everyone can get back to their desks.

Team B is different. It’s evenly divided between successful executives and middle managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and out of discussions. People interject and complete one another’s thoughts. When a team member abruptly changes the topic, the rest of the group follows him off the agenda. At the end of the meeting, the meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around to gossip and talk about their lives.

Which group would you rather join?

Here’s the right answer based on the literature that informed the researchers’ work:

. . .you should probably opt for Team B. Team A may be filled with smart people, all optimized for peak individual efficiency. But the group’s norms discourage equal speaking; there are few exchanges of the kind of personal information that lets teammates pick up on what people are feeling or leaving unsaid. There’s a good chance the members of Team A will continue to act like individuals once they come together, and there’s little to suggest that, as a group, they will become more collectively intelligent.

In contrast, on Team B, people may speak over one another, go on tangents and socialize instead of remaining focused on the agenda. The team may seem inefficient to a casual observer. But all the team members speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While Team B might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.

Google’s researchers conclude:

“. . . no one wants to put on a ‘work face’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.”

These take-aways are equally applicable to most non-work teams. In my experience, a recurring challenge in applying these lessons is team members who dominate discussions often lack self awareness. Even beginning teamwork with an explicit emphasis on the importance of balanced participation sometimes does little to prevent the most loquacious among us from repeatedly dominating discussions. Those most loquacious team members also don’t realize their teammates quickly fatigue, and shortly thereafter, begin tuning them out.

Another challenge in improving teamwork is people have a multitude of negative team experiences as points of reference for every positive one; as a result, they anticipate one or a few people dominating and scant attention being paid to people’s feelings.

That’s why this research deserves a large audience. It not only illuminates why groups often get sideways, but provides a roadmap for improved work and non-work teamwork.

[Thanks FK for the link.]

Why I’m Not Selling Apple

A friend, who has made it a point to resist Apple’s takeover of the personal tech world, emailed yesterday. The subject heading was “Time to Sell”. There was a link to an “Apple’s in decline” article and a follow up with an ominous excerpt. Full disclosure: this post doesn’t relate closely enough to the blog’s stated purpose, but I have to do something to stem the tide of anti-Apple email gloating.

Apple investors have to expect blowback when the stock slides. It just comes with the territory. Anti-Apples get more and more annoyed with every $100 rise in its share price. There’s probably just a touch of envy involved.

Late summer Apple hit $705, today it closed at $450. So the haters are slapping themselves on their backs in glee.

My email “friend” got his Masters in Business Administration at the University of Washington, not the Anderson School, so some remediation is in order.

Principle 1) Buy low and sell high. Apple’s on sale. Compared to the recent high, $255 off per share. In the next year or two, is it more likely to fall another $250 to $200 or rise $250 to $700? I’m betting on the later.

Principle 2) Never invest more than 5% of your total portfolio in a single stock. Apple’s sell-off hasn’t bothered me as much as UCLA’s inability to rebound the basketball because it’s 1/20th of the pie. Imagine having 20 children, one who goes off the rails. By the time you notice, she’d be halfway back to the straight and narrow (especially if she produced a less expensive iPhone for China).

Principle 3) When it comes to equities, be sure to take a medium or long-term perspective. If, for any reason, you might need to cash in your stock investments in a few months or years, avoid stocks, especially those of individual companies. I’m not selling because I don’t need to. I can wait on that 5% of my portfolio. Indefinitely really. That’s why I rolled a portion of my AAPL investment into a family charitable fund mid-summer. When it comes to our equity investments, VTI is the apple pie, VEU is the scoop of vanilla ice cream, and AAPL is the whip cream.

Principle 4) Have realistic expectations. In other words, don’t be ahistorical. Understand the “law of large numbers” and don’t get overly excited on run-ups. What did a lot of investors do in Las Vegas, California, and Florida when real estate prices exploded in the early 2000’s? They extrapolated. “Oh, I can easily earn 20% next year too.” After yesterday’s sell-off of $63, Apple is up 8.13% over twelve months. That’s only disappointing if you assumed it would return 30% annually. Maybe it’s turning into a single’s hitter. Which is fine for me because I’m a Mariners fan.

 

 

Richardson, Schmidt, and North Korean Naivete—Making Matters Worse

It’s Bradley K. Martin’s fault. A decade ago, his outstanding history of contemporary North Korea, “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” sparked my deep-seated curiosity about life in North Korea.

Next I read Barbara Demick’s harrowing “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Then Adam Johnson’s brilliant “The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel.” Last week, Blaine Harden’s riveting “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.” Next in the queue, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” by Melanie Kirkpatrick.

If you’re more a viewer than a reader, watch “Inside North Korea” and “Camp 14: Total Control Zone.”

One can’t read those books and watch those films and not be alternately repulsed, saddened, horrified, angered, and ultimately, changed.

I believe most people are rational, well intentioned, and deserving of respect. From the time my daughters first started talking, I took time to explain to them my expectations, decisions, and actions. In turn, I tried to defuse conflicts by listening to them. I believe in non-violent social change. Like Gandhi, I believe that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I believe diplomacy always holds more promise for international conflict resolution than military action.

And so why did former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s trip to North Korea anger me so much last week? Because my North Korea self-study has challenged much of what I believe to be true about global politics. I’m not sure anything I wrote in the previous paragraph applies to North Korea. The leadership is not rational and the regime isn’t just evil in the context of contemporary world politics, but in the course of human history. I have absolutely no faith that diplomacy will bring about any meaningful change. I’m not sure of the best course of action, but I know Richardson and “Rock Star” Schmidt are making matters worse by helping delude the outside world that North Korea is changing for the better.

It’s reprehensible for Richardson to say, “the naming of a new U.S. secretary of state could also help reset dialogue”. Yeah right, North Korea is the way it is because of Hilary Clinton. That’s an embarrassingly stupid statement for someone with Richardson’s credentials to make. And when a CNN television anchor interviewed Richardson, all she was concerned about was 44 year-old Kenneth Bae, an American being held in North Korea. No concern for the 23 million ordinary North Koreans whose lives are the most hellish on the planet.

Blaine Harden and Suzanne Scholte explain the problem this way.

“In a media culture that feeds on celebrity, no movie star, no pop idol, no Nobel Prize winner stepped forward to demand that outsiders invest emotionally in a distant issue that lacks good video. Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.”

In part, that’s why I resolve to use this humble blog from time to time to inform others about North Korea, to agitate on behalf of impoverished and imprisoned North Koreans, and to criticize naive, misguided public figures.

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