Monday, May 02, 2005

The rock-and-roll formula of great teams and collaboration

If you've ever tried to study with friends you know it's not a great strategy. You'll have fun, but chances are you aren't going to do too well on your project.

The same goes for team-based projects and collaborations. Just look at the history of rock. Many of the best bands started out with existing friends and associates. Over time, one or two or more of the friends are replaced by more skilled musicians. The history of rock is a history of weak ties, of pals replaced with professionals. Think about the Beatles for a moment. Think about how different John Lennon was from Paul McCartney. Now let's look beyond the school of rock. There's serious theory behind this.

Social networks theory posits that social groups benefit from "weak ties". Weak ties represent loose connections with a diversity of people as opposed to strong ties, which are existing connections and relationships between family and close personal friends. Apparently, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science this applies directly to creative teams:

"Northwestern University researchers turned to a different type of team -- reative teams in the arts and sciences -- to determine a team's recipe for success. They discovered that the composition of a great team is the same whether you are working on Broadway or in economics.

We found that teams that achieved success -- by producing musicals on Broadway or publishing academic papers in good journals -- were fundamentally assembled in the same way, by bringing in some experienced people who had not worked together before. The unsuccessful teams repeated the same collaborations over and over again..."

Creating a team with diversity is easy when you're a well-networked professional but harder when you're still a student. You're likely to want to work with your friends, with people you get along with already. The benefit of a team building class is that you will be forced to work with people you aren't pals with. By working with strangers you're more alive to their gifts or challenges. These things aren't so easy to assess when working with pals. In a work situation you'll be dealing with these kinds of conditions and dynamics. Working with diverse connections (weak ties) builds your ability to see the project more objectively.

When it comes to your own projects, the projects you'll want to get grant money for, it's crucial to take the most objective approach and apply that to finding the people who are best suited to the nature of the project. These people may be difficult but talented, they may be socially very different from yourself. The key is to learn to value those differences rather than surrounding yourself with people like yourself. Just think of Lennon and McCartney.