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I’ve been on some amazing teams. I’ve been on not so great teams. I’ve been a part of average teams that could be great with some tweaks. When teams work well together, magic happens.

So, what’s the recipe of a great team? Years and years ago I used to lecture on ways to destroy teams, inspired from my own experiences watching organizations destroy teams as well as some truly disruptive books such as Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy R. Lister. So, if you inverse ways you can destroy a team, will that help you create a great team? Possibly.

I came across another TED video this morning (over the holidays its amazing how much free time I have and I decided to fill it with some inspirational and enlightening videos on TED) by Tom Wujec entitled Build a tower, build a team. Tom plays a game with teams called The Marshmallow Challenge. Essentially, teams are asked to build the tallest freestanding structure they can in 18 minutes with a specific set of materials: uncooked spaghetti, string, marshmallow, masking tape and paper lunch bags. Oh, and the structure teams build must have the marshmallow at the very top. He has conducted this challenge with all sorts of teams with very interesting results. Interestingly he’s found the worst performers were recent grads of business school. Surprisingly, recent grads of kindergarten do quite well.

Why were the kindergarten grads outperforming the recent grads of business school? First, the recent business grads didn’t do so well since they were all trying to take leadership of the team by attempting to exert their own single correct plan upon the rest of the team. None of the kindergarten kids were trying to be the CEO of the team :) – they were focused on working with their team to find a solution. In addition, the way the kids approached the problem was much more iterative – lots more prototyping, lots more trial and error.

There are a few other interesting conclusions. CEO’s didn’t do as well as the kindergarten kids either. However, mix in an executive administrator on team of CEO’s and there was a dramatic increase in results. Also, it turns out that architects and engineers outperformed everyone (whew!).

So, what can we learn from these results? When you add in an executive admin to the group of CEO, this new role tended to act more like a coach – they helped facilitate the process. Architects and engineers still acted iteratively, however, they had superior knowledge of structures and how to apply them to the goal they were trying to achieve.

How can you apply any of this to the way your team works? Well, here are a few insights (backed by my own experience as well):

  1. When on a team, don’t focus on competing for leadership – focus on solving the problem
  2. Have clear goals that are the focus of the entire process
  3. Work iteratively to achieve your goals. Realize that there is no single correct plan.
  4. Just like the architects and engineers, you should have a buffet of specific knowledge and insight to pull from when needed to help you achieve your goals. Knowing when to apply certain technical techniques and design patterns combined with an iterative approach is key to achieving even better success than working iteratively alone.
  5. Great teams work together – physically. Think about trying to solve the marshmallow challenge while working with a distributed team. Would be virtually impossible wouldn’t it. Distributed teams are a reality of business these days, yet we should really consider how we’re forming our teams.

Of course, there are a lot more ingredients to a great team – however, these are some fundamental characteristics that seem to emanate in virtually any team challenge.

This article was originally published on Due to the popularity of the topic, we would like to also share it with our community.

About the Author

Joel Semeniuk

is a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP Microsoft ALM. You can follow him on twitter @JoelSemeniuk.



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