Team Genius, by Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone

Why I read it

I really enjoy leading teams and being part of teams. All of us have interacted within a group, be it at school, work, or in an activity such as a sports team. We’ve all been in some unhealthy, unproductive teams. And, hopefully, we’ve experienced the opposite, too. I’ve always been fascinated by why some teams seemingly click, and others flounder. I was desperate to know whether it was about leadership, personality, expertise, or some unknown dynamics.

I’m currently reading around just this: namely what makes teams thrive, and Team Genius has played a vital role in the research project to date (stay tuned for future blog posts).

In summary

The book opens with the simple principle that early humans had to form teams to survive – it was and is an essential way for our species to prosper and grow. But how much do we know about how to utilise our teams?

Team Genius sets out to explore the science behind high-performing teams. Karlgaard and Malone draw upon a wealth of research and anecdotes to create a fascinating study. There are chapters dedicated to the optimal size of teams, how differences can help, the power of pairs and trios, and finally how to manage a team to truly maximise performance.

Key takeaways

1. Less is more – researchers have found that an optimal number for a team is usually six to ten people; for one thing, it helps the leader’s span of control. Beyond that, the number 150 is used in various studies and theories to suggest a number for a larger team or organisation to thrive. 150 is said to be the number we can have a genuinely social relationship with, to build groups based on trust and a sound bond.

2. We are hardwired to work together our brains are designed to thrive in groups; being part of a trusting, purposeful group can enhance our levels of oxytocin, which in turn makes us feel and more committed to this social interaction.

3. Mirror neurons – one of the reasons it can be so easy to conform to, or enjoy, a team, is because we have mirror neurons that fire up when we observe the actions or expressions of others, encouraging us to mimic what we’ve observed. These neurons help us to emulate the emotions and actions of others, and thus bring us closer to them – an instant shared experience is created. Mirror neurons could explain why a leader who smiles and laughs creates a similar dynamic in their team; or indeed, why negative comments or behaviours in a team can spread to others quickly.

4. Differences matter – as we have seen from the failed model of Real Madrid’s Galacticos, you cannot put a team of people together without considering their cohesion. Teams need to have a variety of skills and experiences, and must engage in collaboration (studies show this needs to be planned) to ensure excellent communication. Studies also found that the homogenous teams couldn’t close the gap on more diverse teams, even if their verbal communication was better.

5. Group minds – to reach a state of ‘hive mind’, or transactive memory, groups need to meet and collaborate until they gain a common understanding or ‘metamemory’ – for example identifying who knows what, or what the team doesn’t know. Teams that reach this state of transactive memory outperform teams who do not. Again, this emphasises the importance of collaboration and examining strategy and vision for the team, and not just day-to-day tasks.

6. Managing your teams to genius – there is a lengthy chapter about how to maximise a team’s performance, including: having a compelling direction; clear boundaries regarding roles; a supportive organisational context; and how the team receives coaching and guidance. There is also explanation about task types, and how to best apply certain strategies to each one.

Favourite quotes:

‘Handled properly, a healthy and successful team can become the farm team for a whole host of new teams that carry with them the parent team’s DNA and that, with luck, are just as healthy and successful’

‘The teams in which we work, and the teams we lead, may not change the world. They can make the world a better place, make our company more successful and secure, and give ourselves and our teammates a more rewarding and fulfilling career. And most of all, we can increase the odds of our team’s success.’

Question and reflect:

Which teams am I a part of right now? Which of those teams is healthy and successful?

What can I do to contribute to my team’s success?

Do the right conditions exist within my organisation for teams to thrive?

Read this if:

You are a leader or part of a team

You want to explore how people can bring the best out of each other

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