“In a team, the members complement each other.” stated Thuy, matter-of-factly. We were having a walk around the block near our office to talk about some of the difficulties we’ve been having with our research teams. Thuy is one the leaders, and has recently been given the role of operation for the whole research team, to try to sort out the lack of coordination we’ve been suffering from. She is a tiny woman, but walks surprisingly fast. Even with my long legs I struggle to catch up with her pace.
“My main challenge is to identify those within the team who have potential to become team leads. But the team composition is also a big factor.”
“How do you make sure that the team composition is favourable?” I queried.
“I’ve been conducting an evaluation of each individual’s skills and personality to make sure the teams would be balanced. Surely you watched Blade Runner? I got this idea from a blog post I read recently: I do a kind of Voight-Kampff test on them, but instead of trying to discern whether or not they are replicants, I ask them situational questions and watch their reactions to see whether they display behaviours more akin to technical minded people, or whether they are attuned to the way that a leader should think.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! How did you come up with the questions?”
“It’s still in trial… I know about a few people already, so I am trying a sample of questions to see if their answers match my expectations. The questions that don’t give much insight I then revise, and those that do, I try it on the rest.”
I cannot hide the smile from my face: “Haha, this is great. you’ve split the group into a training and a test dataset? Forever the data scientist, I see.”
Thuy turns red and shows the embarrassment mixed with pride in her voice: “Yeah, data is key. I have to play to my strengths. I think a lot about this. I have a theory about teams that is very mathematical.”
She knows how to pique my interest. “Go on”, I urge.
“OK, each person is this complex entity. It’s near impossible to have complete knowledge of any individual. So what do we do? We simplify. So we have these personality tests, like Myer-Briggs, or astrology, it’s all the same: they try to classify people into archetypes. It’s just like when you have a vector in a multi-dimensional vector space, and you pick only one or two bases to represent it. You are bound to make gross misrepresentations, simply because all that shows is a projection of your 3D complexity onto a sheet of paper.”
“Right, I get that. How does it relate to teams though?”
“As I said earlier, the members of a group need to complement each other. The team itself is a complex multi-dimensional entity. You want that entity to behave in a certain way, which we will call ‘being effective’. The characteristic of being effective then demands certain contributions from a certain number of aspects. No individual will be a perfect example, but different people can contribute their own vector to the total linear combination, in such a way that the resulting vector has the characteristics that you are looking for. Likewise there will be some negative contributions that you will want to minimize. The trick then is to make sure that the people composing the team will maximize the positive characteristics while minimizing the negative ones.”
Thuy says this all in almost one breath and I can see that the combination of our brisk walking with her enthusiasm has left her dizzy, so I suggest we sit down for a bit. We find a bench next to the canal under a tree and catch our breath for a few seconds.
“This sounds good as a framework, but it’s not practical, right?” I ask, incredulous.
“Yeah, it’s just a guiding principle for now. I don’t think we have the tools to do this kind of analysis yet, but I believe it is possible. I think that’s why a team leader is so important for now. A good team needs a unifying force to bring them together, otherwise the diverging forces will take them away from each other. A good team needs constant maintenance.”
“I suppose this unifying force is in a way defined by the members of the group themselves, no? I mean, nothing exists in isolation.”
“Yeah, that’s why it’s so complex… not only it’s a multi-dimensional problem, it’s also in constant flux. Being this centre of influence holding the people together is a grave matter, and fraught with great responsibility. If you are not prepared, you might just make confusion worse than if no union had taken place.”
“I have been there, and made those mistakes in the past. It is painful. I think it’s a lot of responsibility for one person, and also very fragile: if the team ends up depending on the team leader, then if by any reason they are removed you cause damage. I have found that it is best not to rely only on personalities.”
Thuy seems intrigued: “What do you mean? How else can you bring people together?”
“Well, there’s also culture, process. The job of a leader is to be a proxy for culture, while it is still immature. Culture serves as a much more resilient unifying force, as it becomes part of each individual member of the group.”
“Hmmm… interesting concept.”
“The team leader helps to develop the culture, so that one day it might replace the need for strong leadership, and then you have a self-managed team, making the union much more resilient. The culture still needs constant maintenance though, as entropy is always pulling us towards chaos. So a team leader is still needed, but with a more tender touch.”
Holding together bring good fortune.
Inquire of the oracle once again
Whether you possess sublimity, constancy, and perseverance;
Then there is no blame.
Those who are uncertain gradually join.
Whoever comes too late
Meets with misfortune.
We’ve already been out of the office for a while, so we decide to walk back, slowly this time. I still have something to say on the topic: “When I talk about culture, I think there is a caveat. When the team is young it’s easy to define it, and it ends up being strongly correlated with the character of the individuals. So I believe people who join later might find it difficult to merge in.”
“Yeah, that’s why value matching and culture onboarding is so important in companies. We need to make sure we bring in people who will be in sync as much as possible with the current culture, then spend extra effort at the beginning to give them the vocabulary they will need to understand the idiosyncrasies of the internal established culture and processes. That’s the central power of the organisation: to see to it that every member finds that their true interest lies in holding together with it.”