Robert Bruce Shaw on “Extreme Teams”: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 18th, 2017 by bobmorris

Robert Bruce Shaw assists business leaders in building organizations and teams capable of superior performance. His specialty is working closely with senior executives, as individuals and as groups, on organizational and leadership effectiveness. Robert often works with leaders in new positions to help them transition into their roles and with long-tenured leaders seeking to enhance their effectiveness. His clients span a variety of industries including pharmaceuticals, biotech, financial services, telecommunications, industrial products, defense & intelligence, power utilities and consumer goods.

He has authored numerous books and articles including Trust in the Balance: Building Successful Organizations on Results, Integrity and Concern and Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses that Matter. His latest book, Extreme Teams: Why Pixar, Netflix, Airbnb, and Other Cutting-Edge Companies Succeed Where Most Fail, was published by AMACOM (February 2017). Robert holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from Yale University.

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Before discussing Extreme Teams, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

David Nadler was the founder of the consulting group I joined on finishing my Ph.D. He was very creative and also very savvy – a great consultant who became a role model for me early in my career.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

I studied social psychology as an undergraduate with a number of highly accomplished faculty at the University of California Santa Cruz. In my senior year, I discovered the field of organizational behavior and found my life-long passion.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

It has been very important because of the people who mentored me along the way. They were completely dedicated to understanding and then improving the effectiveness of leaders, teams, and organizations. Despite the passing of years, I think of these professors often and the kind support they provided.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

To be an effective consultant, you need to understand how power influences the behavior of people and groups within organizations. You also need to understand your own approach to power and, in particular, conflict. I wish I knew then what I know now!

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

I find strategic thinking one of hardest capabilities for leaders to demonstrate. Most leaders are much more comfortable with operational execution than strategic thinking. In particular, they have a hard time prioritizing potential areas of investment and, as a result, fail to make necessary progress in the truly critical areas. The CEO of Airbnb noted that one of the most difficult tasks he learned as a leader was deciding what not to do as a company – to focus himself and his team on the areas that were truly critical path.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

I liked Steve Jobs telling his team that “Artists ship.” By that he meant that innovation requires the drive and discipline to put a product into the market that people want. The history of business has too many examples of firms that developed great ideas but then failed to execute them in a commercially viable manner.

Here’s another personal favorite, an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

One of patterns I observed time and again in the firms I examined is the power of a common vision and a deeply held set of values. Many firms talk about this but these companies are much more passionate about what they believe. Take a business like Patagonia that believes its purpose is to produce superior outdoor clothing but in way that does as little harm to the environment as possible. “Go together” doesn’t mean an endless set of meetings to ensure alignment on tactics – it means we agree why we exist and how we operate.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

I have studied hundreds of teams over my career and one of the most common mistakes is what some call “Good Plough, Wrong Field.” In other words, these teams focus on less important issues, and address them effectively, but at the cost of spending too little time on the few issues that will determine their survival over time. Teams can easily allow the less important to drive out the most important – in part, because these issues are often easier to resolve and less risky.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?

Thomas Cromwell who was an advisor to King Henry VIII. He was a fascinating and complex man who had a profound impact on how England and the modern world evolved.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

The best companies create a culture that values curiosity and are willing to experiment. Pixar is one of the best in this regard. The company has developed ground-breaking processes and technologies to make animated films. Yet, it brings in outsiders to challenge how it operates. It also strives to not replicate what worked in the past, such as particular movie plots.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

A combination of people being willing to challenge each other with an equally strong willingness to support each other. I often find one or the other – which doesn’t work if growth is the goal.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

Most people want to work for a company or team that is making a difference. What that means will vary by company and individual but the desire is to have an impact and contribute to a greater good. At Airbnb, it is connecting people and creating a sense of belongingness. At Pixar, it is making films that emotionally move people. The other factor in creating engagement is culture. I find that people want to work in an environment that they find stimulating and engaging. The innovative firms I profile in my book where all started by entrepreneurs who didn’t want to work in a traditional workplace – who wanted to create a workplace that they wanted to come to every day.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Define a purpose that fully engages the people in regard to the work itself, the organization in which they work and their impact on society. To this end, a company should strive to be clear about its purpose and not create something so generic that everyone would want to work for it.

Now please shift your attention to Extreme Teams. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decided to write it?

I have worked with teams of various types most of my career. My initial thought was to write a book about what I have seen – good and bad in how teams operate. I then realized that many of the books and articles on teams were dated – that a new breed of teams was experimenting with innovative approaches. In my mind, these were “2.0 Teams” in building on past models but pushing forward in bold and creative ways.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

One of the most positive experiences I had in writing the book was appreciating the exciting nature of these firms and their teams. They were truly high energy and engaging places to work. Very different than what we find in many more traditional corporations.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

When I started the book, I didn’t think a great deal about the need for entrepreneurial innovation in how we design and manage teams. By the end of the book, this was a key imperative for those who want to build what I call extreme teams.

What are the defining characteristics of a “team environment”?

Most organizations think individuals when they would be better served thinking teams. For example, we hire people based on their individual capabilities without a great deal of thought about how they will work with and compliment the other members of the team (in regard to their ways of thinking, their values, their work style). You need to think both, individuals and teams, but the team perspective needs to be more visible and important.

By which criteria can a determination best be made with regard to whether a team or individuals should complete the given work?

Most organizations overuse teams. That may be a surprising statement coming from someone who values teams. Teams need to be used when the work demands it – otherwise, the ROI on building and managing the team will not be what is desired.

What are the unique challenges for those who lead a team?

I agree with Richard Hackman who noted that the design of the team is critically important (purpose and objectives, who is a member, the group’s work practices, the nature of team rewards…). Most leaders spend too much time focused on managing the team’s interpersonal dynamics and too little time on its design.

What about those who lead a team for the first time

New leaders rise into their position because they are strong individual contributors. As a new team leader, they now gain leverage through others but this requires a change in how they think and operate.

However different extreme teams many be in many (if not most) respects, what do they share in common?

Obsession with the work itself and an ability to create a culture that is simultaneously hard and soft.

You focus on a number of exemplars of extreme teamwork. In your opinion, what is the most valuable business lesson to be learned from each of these? First, in alpha order, Airbnb

Airbnb has created a unique culture that matches it purpose in connecting people. The mantra of the firm is belongingness. The company is as deliberate in creating this in its culture as it is in the customer experience.

Netflix

The firm will regularly overturn the status quo in regard to traditional management practices. For example, Netflix states that average performance will result in a generous severance plan. You don’t find that mentality in many firms.

Patagonia

The firm and its leaders are authentic. They will act in ways that others will not because of their commitment to the firm’s purpose and values. One example is being one of the first companies to build a child-care site in its headquarters building because they believed it was simply the right thing to do for their employees and their children.

Pixar

One of the best examples of a “hard/soft” culture. Has a great sense of community but also is very tough when it comes to producing films that meet their standards. Pixar is a family like environment but at the same time will fire directors who can’t build a team that can deliver a Pixar-quality movie.

Whole Foods

One of the most team-based firms in the world. Everyone in the company belongs to at least one team and the teams operate in many respects as small businesses within the larger enterprise. Whole Foods understands, more than most, the importance of the larger culture supporting teams in regard to formal and informal processes.

Zappos

The story I like best about Zappos is that its founder sold his previous firm because the culture in that firm evolved into something he didn’t like. As a result, he was deliberate about the culture he wanted at Zappos and, in particular, creating a place in which people wanted to work. Take a look at the firm’s website and you will see some innovative approaches to creating an engaging and fun place to work.

Of all the core practices of extreme teams, which seems to be the most difficult to establish and then sustain ? Why?

The best teams push results and relationships to the point of breaking. They do this because that is what produces the best outcomes. That said, doing so it extremely difficult and at risk of going too far. I dedicate one chapter in the book to this topic as a framework to understand how these teams operate.

Why “take comfort in discomfort”?

These teams understand that the enemy is complacency. They also understand that the culture in the team can’t be so harsh that people retreat. Determining how to overcome complacency without creating an overly tough culture is an ongoing challenge in teams.

I agree with Derek Roger and Nick Petrie who assert in Work Without Stress that stress can be substantially reduced (if not eliminated) by developing a resilient mindset. They believe that stress is a function not of events, but of our view of those events. Extreme teams and their leaders are often under severe pressure while achieving high-impact results. What are your own thoughts about all this?

I talk in the book about the research on Grit by Angela Duckworth. Most of the work on grit or resilience focuses on individual traits but equally if not more important is grit within a team. My sense of these groups is that their commitment to a shared purpose, and each other, allows them to persevere when others might not.

Please explain the reference to “terminal niceness.”

This term is used by Xerox’ CEO Ursula Burns. She notes that Xerox is a family but one that at times is too polite and considerate. She wants the Xerox family to be one where people can be direct and even tough with each other because they care about each other.

In your opinion, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when becoming the leader of a new team that is expected to achieve high-impact results?

Understand that teams require a great deal of thought and time to operate well. This doesn’t mean that you micro-manage them but you, as the leader, need to design the team carefully, select the right members, be clear about the vital few priorities and create formal and informal process for it to operate well.

By what process — and according to which criteria — should members be selected for that team?

Extreme teams focus more on culture than capabilities. The founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, describes this as finding the right people, not the best people.

How best to measure the progress of a team’s efforts?

I look at two factors – results and relationships, asking two questions: “Does the team deliver the results expected of it?” and “Are the relationships within the team and with other key teams based on a level of trust?”

Here’s a quotation from Margaret Mead. Please respond to: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Love that quote. I believe that each organization needs to determine its approach to teams – an approach that fits it purpose and culture. Getting teams right is the key to growing a successful company.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Extreme Teams will be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Two key lessons that I hope those early in their careers will take away from the book: First, they will be working in teams their entire career and need to understand how teams best operate; also, they must be willing to experiment with new approaches in developing their own teams. The practices of others can help but you need to find your own way.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

Be deliberate about designing the team but don’t over-engineer it.

To C-level executives? Please explain.

Create the culture that your teams need to thrive. The basic question to ask, time and again, is “What can we do at a company level to empower our teams and help them perform more effectively?” This doesn’t mean that anything goes; in fact, in some cases you need standard practices that produce better results.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

“What is it like to work in one of these teams?” Exhausting at times but always exciting.

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Robert invites you to check out the resources at the Princeton Management Consulting Group website.

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One Response

  1. Chris Altizer says:

    Another insightful and impactful book from Robert Shaw. The impact of culture on teams and of teams on culture resonates strongly. Business has changed so much in so short a time that a new look was needed – thank you Robert for taking that look.

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