Powers Of Two: Why Going It Alone Isn’t What It Is Cracked Up To Be!

Ok, I admit it.  I get pretty excited when I find a book that examines the way people work – together, afterall that is the tag of this website! Joshua Wolf Shenk’s work Powers of Two is a tremendous dive into the way that creative partnerships work, struggle, and ultimately end.9780544031593_hres

Shenk’s is just one of a growing number of texts that have busted the myth of the lone creator, as he points to examples of individuals whose previous position as the lone creator is actually a misreading of history and context (read the book and you will quickly recognize how Jobs wasn’t alone in his work, nor was George Lucas, Vincent Van Gogh or most of the people we look up to).

One of the things that I loved in this book is the classification of pairs that Shenk enumerates. Not all creative partnerships are the same, some favor one who is out in front and the other who stands in the shadows, others present a structure-giver and a content-filler, still others are directors who bring out the best in their stars. Each of these, and likely other models, gives us insight into the need that we have for others as we work (Shenk’s epilogue even points to his own partnership with his editor in making this book a reality).

For many of us, the challenge we have faced in pursuing that great idea, work of art, or new career direction, stems from the isolation we believe we will feel by going it alone. Yet, the reality is we need not seek the lone inventor/creator/designer paradigm. The truth is we all have our strengths and weaknesses. The greatest pairs often account for the balancing out of the weaknesses of the other. Why go it alone and lay your weaknesses out bear as you scratch and claw for success, when working to align with a partner can alleviate some of your major concerns?

What would it look like if instead of one, there were two?

Don’t just take my word for it, take a read of this deep, insightful book and examine what a new form of chemistry and partnership might look like in your own work or play!

Productive Conflict.

CONFLICTNo, you didn’t misread the headline. Yes, it is possible. Contrary to how we generally view conflict, it actually can be a positive and productive thing in an organization. I would go so far as to state that any team or organization that doesn’t promote healthy, creative, content-oriented conflict will not grow or innovate.

Earlier this week, as part of my work at the SynerVision Leadership Foundation, I was able to co-host a hangout with Bill Stierle. Bill is a specialist in communications and relationships, oh and he also serves to mediate and facilitate high-conflict situations. During our Hangout, both Bill and Hugh Ballou challenged the idea that ignoring conflict in our organizations is acceptable. Bill points out that conflict typically flows from one of three levels: 1) Thinking style, 2) Emotional style, or 3) Belief style.

The reality is when we break conflict down into those three levels we begin to provide framework for thinking about what healthy conflict can look like in our teams. If groups work toward developing a safe-place for conflict (removing blaming, shaming, shooting down ideas, triangulation, and avoidance), true growth can occur.

As innovation researchers are quick to point out, new ideas stem from bringing together things that aren’t normally thought of together…this type of thinking will bring on conflict (potentially at any of the three levels), but if we operate from an empathy framework toward the person bringing forward the idea then we have provided space for growth.

But that isn’t always easy. Many times we get really passionate about things that we hold to (thoughts, emotions, beliefs) and we have trouble seeing how others might think, feel, or believe something that we don’t. Bill suggests we can only build an empathetic link as we connect a “feeling” word to a “need” word (at the 23:53 mark of the video, Bill digs into this area…watch it!).

How does conflict impact your team (positively or negatively)? What have you recognized as you “normal” response to conflict? How would creating a safe space for conflict look on your team?

Speaking up.

Yesterday, I wrote in this space about the importance of not allowing a negative lens shape your view of others. In that post, I mentioned how it is our own thinking about others that often leads to conflict, rather than actual actions by that person. Perceptions, not reality. I believe that is very important for individuals to understand and live out. Today, though I want to look at the other hand of the conflict quarter and recognize its positive attributes.

Now, things can be categorized in two ways with this subject. The first is shown in the work of great activists like Dietrich Bonhoeffer have exposed that not standing up to speak against wrong, is evil – “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” This must be understood and embodied. Don’t say yes, by saying nothing and standing by. Sometimes confrontation is the only way to go – speak out against injustice and harm to others, don’t just stand by and let others be taken advantage of, and care for others in just the same way you would care for yourself.

The other way, is when people play the “yes man” role. This is the person who either is trying to get close to a boss or other person of influence and they feel the only real thing they can do is stroke the ego of that individual. We have all been around them before, right? One of the most telling caricatures of this archetype is Lefou in the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast. In that movie, Lefou plays the yes man (also sometimes known as a hype man) to Gaston the bully of the town. Gaston, as depicted in this movie, is quite full of himself and Lefou only serves to exacerbate that issue. He encourages the buffoonery and arrogance of his friend by failing to disagree or expose what are certainly ideas that can bring harm or are just plain stupid (seriously we would never had the terrible idea of kill the beast if at some point in time Lefou just told Gaston that he shouldn’t do something).

If you are connected to a person that only wants you around to confirm their ideas, opinions, and actions you need to find new connections. That is not healthy for you and it is not healthy for them. Don’t enable a person by letting them feast on their ego. You are worth far more as an individual when you learn to think for yourself and speak up based upon what you know (an aside on this, don’t let this be your license to act like you know everything – that is another BAD idea).

Have core values, stand for something, study what comes before you, and speak truthfully. Conflict may come, but it won’t likely be about personality (when you look at the good in others), but it will be based on ideas, processes, and evidence – discussion on these topics is positive as it causes each one of us to be improved. (Just don’t be this guy or the guy in this comic).Image

Think on these things

How often do we get that frame of mind when we are in the midst of conflict that the individual that we are “against” is just downright awful? When everything they do is just wrong, malicious, idiotic, etc.? How often do we judge and perceive their actions with a different standard than we apply to others? How many times have homes, offices, governments, etc. been destroyed by grudges, misunderstandings, unwillingness to listen, and closed thinking toward people and issues? Conflict is so rampant in our world (not that it is always bad, I contend along with many others that there is idea conflict and personality conflict, the latter being detrimental, the former being helpful) and it breaks down so many important relationships simply by the way we think about people.

There is a passage in the Christians Scriptures in which Paul, the Apostle, writes to a group of Christians who are in the midst of conflict (hold-out here if you don’t identify as Christian or religious, this is all about relationships). He identifies that conflict has been part of the framework of this group, and the particular conflict that they faced stems from selfishness and an unwillingness to think about others in a way that makes them an equal and valuable to the group.

Paul first shows examples of those that have been proven to be honored in their group through their selfless actions (as an aside, this is written into a collectivist culture, so honor and shame would be the primary factors for thinking about how people function according to accepted norms). This is intended to point people to a better way of living selflessly, then toward the end of his letter he says this:

“8 And now, brothers, as I close this letter, let me say this one more thing: Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about. 9 Keep putting into practice all you learned from me and saw me doing, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil. 4:8-9, TLB)Image

What would happen if we framed our thoughts about others from what is good about them (and in them) as opposed to the negative? What would happen to our homes, neighborhoods, businesses, government, etc? Can you imagine not looking at someone with a negative label? What if, through looking at, and for, the good in them you were able to totally reframe your relationship? Are you willing to take the step?

Start looking for the good, true and right in others. Find out what makes them who they are. Ask questions, be empathetic, and care about them.

Sports: Where I First Fell in Love with Teamwork (Part 5 – The Fab Five)

Mergers and acquisitions don’t work. Statistics show that between 70 and 90% of them are categorized as failures. This seemed to be the case when a massive merger brought together a veteran squad of players and five young, highly touted men to the University of Michigan in the 1991-92 season, until they figured it out.

Long before Kentucky made a surprising run in this years’ NCAA Tournament where their group of Freshman led them to an almost National Championship, a group of Five, the Fab Five, fought even greater odds to fall short, just short (well they made it to the title game but were blown out by 20 points, so call it what you want). This was one of the most amazing seasons for any team as chemistry, leadership, and style of play were part of an ongoing battle for which identity would shape the team – from the moment the five youngsters made it to campus.

the fab five

While I wish I could tell the whole story, there is no point of trying to hit more than a few high points, if you don’t know the story or were too young read Mitch Albom’s The Fab Five (not only is the greatest chronicle of the team, it is one of the greatest basketball books in history – in my opinion). The story of recruitment, practice, transitions, and coaching are amazing. An overly confident, highly skilled group of players met with resistance and won (mostly).

Given that this is a blog about teamwork, I want to point to some things that I learned from The Fab Five:

Find people who believe in the mission.

It was Jalen Rose that made this team happen. Really it was. Once the Detroit native had committed he did everything in his power (no money jokes here MSU fans) to bring together the rest of the class. Growing up in Detroit, the son of a famous basketball player (though he didn’t really know his father till later in life), Rose loved Michigan. His friend and Detroit rival, Webber was stuck between Michigan and Duke. Howard, a Chicago native was a big catch, as were Texans Ray Jackson and Jimmy King. He was a recruiter and champion for the Michigan brand (and still is).

Rose bought in to the possibility that they could do something amazing. While most people look at Webber as the leader of that team, it is without a doubt Rose that set the tone for the swagger, confidence, and “us against the world” mantra that made the Fab Five what it was. He believed that it could happen and frankly he helped make it happen (well, almost).

Conflict can be tough at first, but often it can bring about a positive outcome.

If you read the story of what happened when the five freshmen first got on campus for basketball practice, you will understand this one. The 1988-89 team riding the wave of interim coach Steve Fisher, pulled off a major coup by winning the National Championship behind star performers Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Loy Vaught, and Terry Mills. In 1989 most of the team returned except Rice. By the 1990-91 season all of the stars of that magic year were gone and a batch of players who had grown up under them underperformed and fell to a sub-.500 record. Even though they had solid players like Eric Riley, Michael Talley, Rob Pelinka, and James Voskuil who had all played big roles in earlier teams, the Fab Five came in with expectations for themselves to make their own mark on Michigan basketball.

Albom chronicles how the youngsters challenged the older players to a scrimmage early in the season, but the coaching staff was hesitant. Talley, Riley, Pelinka, and Voskuil could have (and all did at varying points in the season) started. But the brash youngsters pushed them hard and thus the team experienced a great deal of conflict.

It wasn’t until later in the season that it became apparent that the freshmen were all ready. Webber started every game, Rose started 33 of 34, Howard 31 of 34, King 21 of 34, and Jackson 15 of 34. When the momentum had swung to the younger guys the team truly gelled and began rolling. As they went 11-4 with the Fab Five starting together, the team began to embrace each other (even the former starters) and recognize the potential they could have when they were all moving in the same direction.

Establishing a consistent identity is of extreme importance, even if getting there is hard.

Often times, when people write about identity, they make it seem easy, however anyone who has agonized through a branding process knows that this is a very challenging issue. The Michigan basketball team that year had three separate identities. First was the coaching staff’s idea of the team, second was the veteran players’ idea of the team, and finally the freshmen’s idea of the team.

Ultimately this team is best known for its baggy shorts, black socks, and cocky attitude. Yet it was a merging together of the three ideas of the team that made them successful. Players like Riley, Talley, Voskuil, and Pelinka after struggling initially (as described in the previous section) ultimately embraced their roles and the minutes they received and played major roles in minor opportunities during that first run to the NCAA Finals.

Success brings buy-in.

When you win, people get on board. When you lose dissension can easily creep up. Michigan had a tremendous amount of talent that year, but it is likely that the internal squabbles early in the season actually brought the team together to the point that they could succeed as the season went along. It is said that girls have to be friends to fight for one another, but guys have to fight one another to be friends – that was exactly the case with this team. As they battled each other early, then battled other teams, they began to recognize the value and they became a team.

By the time the 1992-93 team took the floor, there was no doubt that this team was going to be good! Through the battles of the previous year, and the successes they found in them, all the players began buying in, not just to the Fab Five, but more importantly to the image of team that Coach Fisher was preaching. All total during the 3 years that at least 4 of the 5 guys were on campus, the won a total of 80 games and brought about a change in the way that Michigan was thought of in regards to basketball (sadly the Ed Martin scandal also tarnished that image leading to a long string of sub-par records before the recent uptick under John Beilein).

Maturity is important, even when the immature are the star performers.

The Fab Five were brash, overconfident, and really good. But it was the upper classmen who helped settle them down and give them perspective. Many times when individuals come into an organization as hotshots, they have never experienced failure. It often takes someone older and more mature to put failure in perspective. That is exactly what occurred as the older guys who had experienced both the great year of 1989-90 and the very poor season of 1990-91 were able to do.

They may no longer have been the stars, but they understood that they were being called on as mature mentors to help guide the process. This is an important and often undesirable position for people who have themselves enjoyed the spotlight. Rather than passing on the torch and helping to bring about a new era of success, they often balk at the chance and keep their learning to themselves. Talley, Riley, Pelinka, and Voskuil taught some great lessons during that time, cementing themselves as part of two of the most amazing seasons in Michigan basketball history. (Side note, Talley is now a teacher and coach, Pelinka is one of the top agents in the NBA, and both Voskuil and Riley had solid careers overseas).

So many other stories that could be shared, but these lessons are of tremendous value!