Extreme Teams: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: February 24th, 2017 by bobmorris

Extreme Teams: Why Pixar, Netflix, Airbnb, and Other Cutting-Edge Companies Succeed Where Most Fail
Robert Bruce Shaw
AMACOM (January 2017)

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

I was again reminded of Margaret Mead’s affirmation as I began to read this book. All great teams throughout history have relied on cohesive collaboration as well as on mutual respect and trust to achieve what no individual member ever could. Consider Whole Foods.

As Robert Bruce Shaw suggests, “Three guiding principles underlie the team environment at Whole Foods. First, the company believes that people are by nature social beings who feel most comfortable when part of a small group. From this perspective, building a company around teams is building a company based on human nature. Everyone in the company belongs to at least one team…A second management principle shapes how teams operate at Whole Foods. They company believes teams function best when they embrace a set off company-wide practices. Teams at Whole Foods have a great deal of authority to make decisions that benefit customers, team members, and the company…A third guiding principle at Whole Foods is a belief in the benefits of being open and transparent as a company. The goal is to create a ‘no secrets’ environment where information about its strategies and operations is available to all employees. The firm is designed to ensure that everyone is aware of how the company is performing and, in particular, how each team us performing.”

I include these principles because they also help to explain the extraordinary success of other companies, notably Airbnb, Alibaba, Apple, Google, Netflix, Pixar, and Zappos.

Shaw provides key takeaways at the conclusion of six of the book’s seven chapters. For example, in Chapter 1 with regard to results and relationships:

o “The fundamental dynamic in teams is delivering results while building relationships. Every team faces the challenge of doing both.”

o “In many cases, results and relationships are synergistic — each supporting the other and producing virtuous cycles (where results enhance relationships and relationships enhance results.”

o “In some situations, however, results and relationships are antagonistic, with extremes in one undermining the other. An excessive focus on results can erode relation ships; an excessive focus on relationships can erode results.”

o “Many teams strive to manage the interplay between results and relationships by maintaining an acceptable equilibrium — enough results to move the group forward without taking undue risk.”

o “Striving for equilibrium, however, is a seductive trap. It can result in stagnation as a team seeks to maintain a comfortable balance between results and relationships in an environment that requires more of each [of one or of the other or of both].”

In Chapter 2 with regard to fostering a shared obsession:

o “Genius, in teams, is found at the edges. Cutting-edge teams push the results and relationships to the breaking point with an understanding of the need to manage the risks that come with doing so.”

o They view their work as a calling — much more than as a job to be done. The team members align around a higher purpose that shapes their collective thinking and behavior.

o Their obsessive nature is both a blessing and a curse — necessary to achieve something extraordinary but potentially destructive if not managed well.

In Chapter 3 with regard to hiring those who best fit the workplace culture:

o Most firms hire based on a job candidate’s resume — assessing how well his or her skills fit the demands of a specific job.

o Cutting-edge firms, in contrast, place equal if not greater emphasis on a person’s fit to their culture.

o Cultural fit is important in three areas: each person must embrace the group’s higher purpose, the value it places on results, and the value it places on relationships.

o The best firms and teams develop robust processes to screen for these traits in the hiring and promotion of their people.

In Stealing Fire, Stephen Kotler and Jamie Wheal rigorously examine one of the most highly respected organizations, the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVG-RU), generally referred to as the “SEALs.” It consists of nine teams. Their physical and especially mental training programs are the most extreme of any of which I am now aware. These observations by Kotler and Wheal could have just as easily been expressed by Shaw:

“Almost all great achievements, in business and society, are the result of small groups of people working together to achieve ambitious goals. The leaders of these groups select who becomes members of their teams and then motivate them to achieve more than they thought possible. These leaders deserve the accolades that come their way when their teams perform well. [Anonymity is among the core values of a SEAL unit.] It is the team, however, that delivers on the leader’s vision even though its members are typically unknown outside of the organization in which they work. Teams, not individuals, make the difference. The best teams provide another, equally important, benefit. They meet the need of most people to work with others to achieve something greater than themselves.”

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and value of Robert Bruce Shaw’s explanation of “why Pixar, Netflix, Airbnb, and other cutting edge companies succeed where most fail.” However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of him and his work.

I urge those who share my appreciation of this book to check out two others: the aforementioned Stealing Fire and Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations co-authored by Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone.

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