Ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.
“We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”
The capacity to build and cultivate an effective team is fundamental to every company’s success. This is a no-brainer. But to rethink the notion of ‘team’ in order to radically rework the process through which creative teams are built can be an entirely different matter (depending on how far you want to take it). Rearranging the components within a relatively fixed structure (i.e. team structure) is a challenging yet common task. Modifying the structure itself, however, requires a more extensive commitment and is much easier said than done. This article explores the latter.
What We Know:
Every company wants an ‘A-Team.’ But every company generally ‘knows’ how to build a one: It’s a matter of hiring the right people, having the right leadership, applying appropriate resources, and implementing a management and training process that’s appropriate to a company’s capacity and potential. There’s more to it of course, but those details generally fit within this structure. Aside from reconfiguring the process within a structure (which works) or adding more resources or complexity to the process (which also works), there isn’t much more that is new.
What We Don’t Know:
What if we were to take the notion of ‘team’ as a verb instead of a noun; a fluid process that envelops or embraces variable circumstances rather than a fixed structure that tries to rigidly embed itself into them? In other words, a team that seeks to continually adapt to its environment and evolve beyond its foundational structure? To accomplish this, we would have to question the assumptions underlying our notions of team: What constitutes a team, how it works dynamically vs. structurally, and how its creation indirectly establishes its own limitations outside of operational functions.
Here are a few ideas to think about:
1. Think in terms of differentiation rather than categorical repetition:
Let’s take Heraclitus’ fragment as quoted at the beginning of this article. By saying that “we both step and do not step into the same rivers,” Heraclitus’ statement injects the notions of flow and change into two distinct terms (we and river) and draws a distinction between two simultaneous ‘events.’ On one hand, a river is both a categorical and physical entity. Rivers are dynamic and undergo constant change in time (waters flow at varying volumes and speeds). We can step into the same river twice, but the conditions of that river will always differ from the last, however subtle or drastic that difference may be; a river’s flow can never ‘repeat’ itself. On the other hand, and like the river, we are also undergoing perpetual transformations. The experiences and conditions that make us who we are change over time. And over longer durations, that change can become immense (we are and then we are not, as we’re always becoming something else). Stepping into the same river over any given period of time already presupposes a change in both the river and the person stepping into it.
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You can easily take this concept and swap business environment for ‘river’ and team for the ‘we.’ It’s a similar concept. I’ll let you do the rest of the thinking work.
2. Think in terms of attributes rather than (any limited notion of) people:
We’ve all heard the saying that there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ Let’s look deeper into this maxim. A team may be comprised of ‘people’ with their set of skills and assigned roles. But on a more molecular level, a team envelops a unique set of collective attributes—qualities, interests, tendencies, etc.—which both powers its functionalities and defines its potential; the former tends to be ‘collective’ while the latter ‘distributive.’ Attributes are both ‘impersonal’ and fluid, as they escape the preconceived limitations of any one member given the circumstance and time.
Rigidly defining a team member’s capabilities based on standard operational criteria or assumptions is a common error. Creative organizations know that individual attributes, such as applicable and dormant skills, interests, or even tendencies, some of which may have little to do with a given operation, in time might have some relevance at a later or different stage in which change and adaptive actions are necessary. In contrast, hard-wiring a person’s identifiable capabilities into a given role or task are a sure way to negate a team’s capacity to remain fluid and adaptive.
3. Attributes do not recognize hierarchy:
An individual is neither a fixed nor static entity. An individual possesses various attributes and skills that he or she brings to the table. Skills are fluid: They can be modulated, transformed, and re-injected into different contexts of application. Moreover, there’s an inter-connected distinction between a ‘skill’ and the lateral skill-related attributes that a person draws upon to activate that skill (two people will do the same task differently, drawing upon experiences, direct or indirect, that affect the way they apply their skills). If attributes envelop a potential with regard to facility, whether that facility currently exists or not, then we can easily imagine how that potential might naturally exceed the limitations of hierarchy. Some people have a knack for certain things regardless of their education, experience, or rank.
In short, there are people at the lower ladders of an organization who may have the potential to do better work than others at a much higher ladder (perhaps due to natural facility or tendency), or there are people in a given department who may have better success in doing work intended for individuals in another (semi- or unrelated) department. Often times, this potential may go unnoticed either because the skills are currently not present or developed, or that structural hierarchies limit the opportunities for such potential to be seen.
What the Team Becomes:
In conclusion, we have to look at teams in terms of structure in order to function effectively. We have to navigate our business environment using measurable means. There’s no way around it. We have to categorize things in order to avoid chaos. In the end, there are categories and things that are categorized (a team and its constituents and attributes; dynamics of a business environment and our interpretation of it).
It’s in the nature of categories to contain things.
But in the case of creating an effective and evolutionary team, it’s sometimes necessary to reverse this way of thinking and allow the things to contain and eventually transform the categories.