spring / 2018

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play a different game
Juliet Stott
Shane Snow on the power of lateral thinking
Juliet Stott
Jun 18, 2018

Breakthroughs happen not when you play the same game, but when you play a different one, says Shane Snow in his latest book DREAM TEAMS. The award-winning journalist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of the content technology company Contently spoke to Content Magazine about what a dream team is, the role diversity and cognitive friction play in creating a successful team, and why managers who lead from the shadows help to elevate a team’s success.

Content: What is your favorite Dream Team in the book and what lessons can we learn from them or their approach?
Shane: I really like the Detective Team in the first chapter. Kate Warne, her partner Webster, Pinkerton and those old private detectives laid the foundation for the detective industry and really changed the nature of detective work. They were a small group of people, but they were such a cool team because they were so open-minded and so clever, especially for their time.

I loved that Pinkerton was so good at being open to different people working with him and not just staying with the traditional model of how detective work should be done. When he realized that Kate Warne was such a great master of disguise, smooth talker and clever detective he asked her to build a female detective bureau so that she could supply women to all of his other cases. For the mid-1800s that was just an outrageous thing to do, but also so cool and so effective.

What types of people make up a ‘Dream Team’, and what role does diversity play in this?
The typical measures we use in our standard hiring and team building are wrong. When we’re hiring we tend to look at people’s résumés - for how prestigious a place they’ve worked or studied at, what experience they have and whether they capitalized on the right things. But that’s not what makes a team better than any regular group of people. What makes a ‘Dream Team’ is a combination of people who see things differently, who approach things differently and who can bring different kinds of life experiences to the table.

We tend to say that on paper we want all these perfect things, and then get a bunch of people who kind of match that. But it turns out that those people are going to be much more likely to approach problems the same ways as each other. So, to create a truly ground-breaking team you need to find people who can add different elements, this is where diversity can help.

Yet diversity is not just about having people that are different, who look different or come from different places, it’s about bringing people in who can do something different. If you look at the most amazing underdog teams in history that ever changed the world or their world, they’re usually a ragtag group of misfits that exceed the expectations. That’s how ‘Dream Teams’ form.

How can companies seek different people out?
There are two dimensions to look for: perspectives, i.e. the way a person looks at the world’s problems, and heuristics i.e. a person’s approach to actually tackling things. Heuristics are connected to education, the way we grew up, and to the kinds of things we’ve been through, and perspectives are about who we are, how we see the world, and how the world has treated us. You can almost make a matrix of perspectives on one dimension and heuristics on another. The more you cover every spot in the matrix, the more chance you have of having a group that can see things see further than another group.

At Contently, we use stories as a way to figure out people’s unique experience. In our hiring process I’m less interested in asking questions like, “How do you do x,” and “What’s the right answer to y?” because someone who is prepared in an interview and has studied how to make a good résumé, is going to have all of that right. What I like to do is ask for people to share their story, so I’ll ask questions like: “What has had the greatest impact on you growing up?” or “When you look back on your life, what’s a time when you changed your mind in a dramatic way? What’s the story of that?”

I think this approach crucially sets up the relationship from the start, so when they walk in the door (if you hire them), they start immediately feeling like you appreciate them for who they are and you want them to be themselves.

What role do managers or leaders play in facilitating and nurturing great teams? There is a zone of ‘optimal friction’ that dream teams live in, and you can’t be in that zone if things get personal or if you are too similar, or if you are too afraid to speak up. Great leaders try to keep the relationship of their team in a zone of ‘cognitive friction’. They stoke, they provoke, they look for dissent, they ask people to speak up with dissent. They get people to change the side of the argument they are doing so that things can stay in that zone. They also work to depressurize things when things get too intense, hot or personal. I go into this at length in the book but a great way to do this is through humor and play, getting people to be comfortable around each other and making the war about ideas not about teams against each other or about being out for yourself. The leaders and managers that are the best are so focused on helping their team, that they often fade into the background. The best leaders are often the ones behind the scenes, pushing other people to do the great things and to make great decisions.

What advice would you give to those wanting to create a ‘Dream Team’ of their own?
Learning to be more open minded, to be more intellectually humble, to let go of your view points and respect other viewpoints, is very hard to do, but it’s the most important thing that we can do as a leader or a contributor to make an amazing team. I’m so passionate about this, I’ve created an assessment tool that can help leaders identify the different areas where they can improve their open-mindedness and intellectual humility.