How to put together a team of genius

Managers, ignore these insights at your own peril

Here’s a question for you: What are the ingredients necessary to create a winning team?

Team Genius cover

Think about it for a moment…really.

We all have notions about what’s needed to create a winning team, or what a winning team looks like, but a lot of those notions are being dispelled by a deluge of scientific evidence that is giving us a new understanding about how to get it right.

In their new book, Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations, Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone, delve into the science of teams and what they report back is provocative and a potential game-changer for you and your organization.

If you’re in business Team Genius is a must read…

That’s because today, work gets done by teams, not by lone geniuses, and increasingly so. In a world of accelerated change, uncertainty, and increasing complexity, you need high-performing teams that leverage the talents of each member to create superior results—brilliance unattainable by individuals or groups of individuals.

Assembling, invoking, managing, measuring and disbanding teams, of course, is easier said than done. Hitherto, we’ve only had vague notions about what works, based mostly on our past experience. We got it wrong as much as we got it right and Karlgaard and Malone argue that such a hit and miss approach is not only costly, it’s unnecessary. There’s gold in them thar hills for those willing to invest the time to understand and apply these principles. Knowing how to create teams of genius, the authors argue, can bestow upon you and your organization, a sizable competitive advantage. Here’s your chance to get this right before your competitors do.

Not more management mumbo jumbo

This book if chock-full of fascinating and actionable insights, ideas that will transform the way you think and look at teams.

This is not more of the same hackneyed, half-truths we’ve been hearing about for years. That’s why you need to buy it and study it.

There’s too much to cover in this post but I want to point out the top 3 insights that simply blew me away.

Insight 1: Since time immemorial, humans have been working in teams

In fact, we were designed by our maker to work well in teams.

I sort of already understood this concept but Karlgaard and Malone totally underscored and clarified it for me. It seems humans were endowed by their creator with an uncanny ability to work in a team. Science seems to suggest that human brains, those soft, gelatinous masses that account for only 3% of our body mass and yet consume nearly 30% of available energy, got bigger and more complex precisely because of the processing heft required to get along with others.

Amidst a fascinating discussion of mirror neurons, transitive memory and the sort, is the insight that a single mind connected to other minds can, together, create, innovate and problem solve on a level wholly different and unattainable by an individual working alone. By having the hardware to be empathetic, manipulate language and pick up on thousands of subtle and not so subtle signals, we have the ability to connect with others in amazing ways that supersize our creative and productive capacities.

Surprisingly, this reminds me of Napoleon Hill’s “master mind” concept and in essence, that’s what it is. But where Hill put his faith in pseudo-scientific mysticism, the discussion in Team Genius is grounded in pure, verifiable science.

Insight 2: A periodic table of team sizes, types and properties helps you build a team tailored to your needs

The second half of the book does something remarkable, it gives us an easy to follow guide of different teams and their properties. Like the periodic table of elements, it allows us to understand the fundamental building blocks of teams so that we can craft the right team for the right situation.

Chapter 7, for example, features an in-depth look at pairings including no less than 13 variations of this fundamental building block of all teams. From “Got Your Six” to “Castor and Pollux” pairings, I have never seen an analysis with this much detail about the properties of teams of different sizes. Gold!

In addition to pairings, the authors go on to describe various types of trios, teams of four or more (7 ± 2, 15 ± 3), and very large teams (50, 150, 450, 1500 and more).

This section alone is worth the price of admission.

The understanding of ideal team sizes and their properties is an invaluable tool for anyone in business looking to build effective teams. Wether you’re looking for a business partner or a collaborator, or want to optimize the structure of your organization, this should be of tremendous interest to you.

Insight 3: Just about everything you’ve heard about team diversity is WRONG!

This is the biggest take-way for me.

We’ve all been taught that diversity in business and teams is important, but it seems we’ve gotten the concept of diversity wrong. When we think about diversity we think about being inclusive in terms of age, gender and race/ethnicity and yet it turns out that this kind of diversity is less a predictor of performance than we’ve been led to believe.

That kind of diversity is a kind of red herring.

The kind of diversity you’re looking for, the rocket fuel that can propel your teams to high performance is *cognitive diversity*. Kaarlgard and Malone explain that cognitive diversity is driven by three factors (1) Training (2) Experiences and (3) Genes. Leading scientists believe the first 2 are the most critical since they heavily inform the heuristics, interpretations and perspectives people apply to creative challenges or problem-solving.

So yes, achieving gender balance in teams, to take an example of the conventional notion of diversity, is probably a very good idea, but not exactly for the conventional reasons given. Gender is not the driving force, it’s the differences in heuristics, interpretations and perspectives that such teams probably achieve that makes them more likely to be effective. Said another way, you can achieve gender balance but if the team members all have similar cognitive abilities, that team may be inadequate for the task at hand.

Cognitive diversity trumps all.

Powerful and exciting, no?

I highly recommend this book. Read it. Study it. Apply it in your life and business.