A view from Andy Nairn

Pizzas and polished stones: how to build a great team

Embracing conflict is just one way to transform a group of also-rans into a team of world-beaters, says Lucky Generals' Andy Nairn.

Teamwork has been in the news a lot recently. In sport, Leicester City’s shock league win has generally been put down to a triumph of communal spirit over individual talent. Meanwhile, in politics, both the Tories and Labour have been criticised for lack of cohesion in their ranks. And, in our own little world, some agencies have been sharing plans to dissolve individual creative teams and replace them with a more fluid way of working.

It feels inarguable that teamwork is now more important to business generally, and our industry specifically, than ever before. But it’s hardly a panacea for all our problems. In fact, excessive or misguided "collaboration" can sometimes get in the way of great work.

So how do you forge a team of world-beaters rather than a bunch of also-rans? In my experience (and I’m talking professionally here – the sporting outfits I follow fall very much into the second category above), it comes down to a handful of factors. 

First, think small. The modern vogue seems to be for massive project teams in a bid to encompass every conceivable discipline and level. But piling people on to a task, while superficially symbolising a collaborative mindset, often simply slows things down and allows people to avoid individual accountability. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos combats this by insisting on "the two-pizza rule": if you can’t feed your team on a couple of Domino’s finest, then you need to break it up. We could all do with remembering this the next time we get too literal about "growing" our teams.

Second, give people the freedom to make mistakes. A recent study among Google employees found that this "psychological safety" was "far and away" the greatest predictor of success within that organisation. In turn, this quality was strongly correlated with team stability. This makes sense to me: when you know your colleagues well, you’re more likely to try new things. Paradoxically, when you’re still finding your feet with strangers, you’re more inclined to play safe. Again, worth bearing in mind the next time you’re tempted to freshen up a team just for the sake of it.

Third, create a common purpose. Several Harvard Business School studies point to this as a key factor, reporting that teams gel better when members believe they’re striving towards a shared goal. Lucky Generals’ entire culture is based on this: the collective nature of our name is deliberate; we don’t publish individual credits for our work and our whole process revolves around defining a powerful, shared mission – pithy enough to put on a flag. We’ve found that having this common goal renders hierarchies and disciplinary divisions meaningless – as well as making work more fun.

Fourth, embrace conflict. All too often, "good teamwork" is misinterpreted as a requirement that everybody gets on all the time. In reality, strong squads are often built through a culture of appropriate challenge. Steve Jobs’ tenure at Apple is perhaps the classic example of this. He was fond of telling a parable about an old guy who lived near his childhood home and who used to put rough stones in a raucous machine and turn them into polished articles. His analogy was that teams only create great ideas by bashing them around and making some noise. Instead of spending all our time working out how to get people to be friends, maybe we should devote some of it to helping them argue?

Fifth, give youth a chance. Much has rightly been written about the ageism suffered by older members of our industry. But prejudice also operates at the opposite end of the spectrum. Too many marketers and agencies apparently agree with Alan Hansen’s famous advice to Sir Alex Ferguson that "you never win anything with kids". We should all remind ourselves that Fergie’s youngsters went on to storm the league that year and place more power and opportunities in the hands of our next generation. Who’s your Giggs, Scholes or Beckham?

Finally, play to your own strengths. The best teams concentrate on their own A game rather than fretting about others’ capabilities. So don’t ask who’s on the new-business pitch with you (you can’t do anything about it). Don’t ape the management consultants or lawyers (you’ll never beat them at their own game). Don’t try to mimic your client’s culture (they’re not paying you to be clones of themselves). Instead, get on with building your own team and doing your own thing. To paraphrase the great Brian Clough (the last manager to achieve an upset on the scale of Leicester’s), I’m not saying you’ll be the best at that, but you’ll definitely be in the top one.

Andy Nairn is a founding partner of Lucky Generals