Team Dynamics

The other day someone asked me what sort of team I like to manage; I don’t remember the exact question, but that was sort of the gist. I don’t remember what my answer was either, but as per usual, I thought of the perfect answer later.

I used to do a little mountaineering. On more serious climbs, there are teams filled with experienced climbers and then there are teams where you have one or two experienced climbers, and then a bunch of less experienced climbers who just follow the leader.

Teams where all (or most) members are experienced

This is a team where everyone knows what they’re doing. In mountaineering, like design and/or marketing, there are several roles people can play. Different climbers excel in different roles. Some people are better at rock, others excel on ice, some are a wonder of optimism and good cheer (seriously, this matters), and some can haul weight and break trail like a machine. But everyone knows the route, the pitches, what time the weather is likely to come in, etc. They’re all climbing toward a common goal, and they may argue at times (even passionately), but at the end of the day, the decisions are made together in order to achieve the goal. In groups like these, leadership is democratic and members chose one another based on mutual respect.

Guided climbs

Another type of team consists of an experienced climber or guide, and then others who are new, or newer. Team members may be strangers. They probably don’t trust one another. They don’t all have an equal voice in decisions, and while they share a common goal, they don’t know enough about the climb to get there without a leader. If the leader fails or makes a bad choice, they all suffer.

My preferred team style

I prefer the team where everyone trusts one another to do their job. And while it may sound naive in the workplace where there are junior and senior roles, I think it’s a realistic goal. I’m also not a fan of such strict role definitions and leadership structures.

In climbing, like design, we all start somewhere. Most of us, or at least most of my friends, started as the newbie in a more experienced group. You have to learn sometime. But when you have mentors, and you’re around listening to the decisions being made, you learn. And then one day, you find that people are looking at you when decisions are being made. And other, less-experienced climbers are now following you.

In this team, everyone has a voice. The team chose themselves. If you’re on a climb with talented climbers, even if you’re new, you probably wouldn’t have been invited if you didn’t have potential. The same with designers; if you’re a young designer and you got the job, someone on that team (hopefully every one on that team) thinks you have promise. If you’re a young designer on my team and I hired you, you wouldn’t be there if I didn’t think you had the chance to be better than I was. Oftentimes, the people I hire are already better than me in a lot of ways.

Talented people aren’t insecure

The reason I like this model is because respect makes all the difference. I’ve been on design teams where there was a leader and everyone else was expected to toe the line, it’s a toxic environment.

If you’re new(ish) and looking for a job and people say that they take everyone’s opinion into account, then I have a suggestion for you for a followup question: “Tell me about a time when a junior member of your team radically changed the direction of a project.”

Because everyone, no matter how junior, should have a voice. If they’re smart, they listen more than they talk, but while experience is important, so is a fresh perspective.

It can be really nice

I’ve never been on a climbing trip where there was any drama over who should lead. In contrast, in my day job, that is a daily power struggle and the desire to be in control has long eclipsed the actual goal. Often times it’s too many people and not enough work. Or people being “managed” by others who have no clue about design or marketing.

But whatever the reason, it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve been on plenty of teams where roles and projects were determined as gracefully as they are on the mountain. Trust and respect are the key.