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Project Success: Why A ‘Teams of Misfits’ Can Surprise Everybody

Data suggests that it is time to re-think the composition of project teams –  to put performance and innovation ahead of team harmony.

The Team of Misfits   

It is the classic Hollywood movie set-up (in movies from Oceans Eleven to the A-Team or X Men) a ‘team of misfits’ – a bunch of people thrown together from different backgrounds with unique talents as well as idiosyncratic personalities – bouncing off each other, pulling in different directions and almost certain to fail.  But if you have seen the movie you know that what happens is the opposite of what is expected – the team ends up united, unstoppable and victorious.  

This ‘team of misfits’ storyline is regularly played out in respect of Strategic Projects – where teams of leaders are brought together, to work on projects or initiatives, despite having little in common.  The only difference is that the outcome isn’t always a victory.  Indeed, far from it.  ‘Teams of misfits’ are more prone to dysfunction than to greatness – that is unless they are carefully managed.

When ‘Misfits’ Are Needed

Bringing a group of people together is not enough to create an effective project team, much less a high performing one. This is particularly true in respect of strategic projects that:

  • Span multiple boundaries and functions
  • Bring together ‘A players’ – high status individuals or individual high performers.

In both these cases a team of misfits is the likely (and indeed necessary) outcome. The end-result then will be either stellar team performance or dysfunction.

Cross-functional Misfits

Strategic projects typically span multiple boundaries and functions. That means project teams must span boundaries and functions too.  That entails bringing people together who shouldn’t be together (at least according to the traditional organizational chart) and may have little in common. For example:

  • Different roles and responsibilities (e.g. metrics & Kpis)
  • Different background & training
  • Different personality profiles (e.g. the compliance or marketing ‘personality’) 
  • They may even speak a different language (or at least use different terminology).

Thinking ‘outside the box’ has a new meaning, as in thinking outside your own silo, function or team.  That is exactly what is required for today’s complex Strategic Initiatives to succeed – they require effective cross-functional collaboration. However, for organizations that have traditionally been structured based on a functional hierarchy, that is not easy. The result may be as much competition, as cooperation.

A-Player’ Misfits

To have all the right people on a project team requires an eclectic mix of leaders, roles, functions, skills and even personalities. It also means that people who have traditionally been rewarded for their own individual performance, must now cooperate with others if they are to succeed. That is a particular challenge for high-performers, the so-called ‘A-players’ of the organization.

The Paradox of Teams

We have this idealized view of teams – where collaboration is always effective, where people get along and indeed bring out the best in each other, where personalities gel and individual egos sublimate to a common purpose or shared goal.  But the reality of teams is a lot more complex – a lot messier too.  

Paradoxically, however, the mess is not just a source of tension, conflict and frustration, it is also the source of creative problem-solving, performance and innovation.  There in is the irony – that which can tear teams apart can also enable them to achieve greatness.

The solution to project team effectiveness, however, is not to ensure that all the pieces fit together better. With the aim of reducing conflict or tension within the team, it would be tempting to reduce the level of diversity or difference. While the result may be greater harmony it is unlikely to translate into peak levels of performance.

Requisite Diversity

Complex projects demand a higher level of diversity within a project team. That is if they are to move beyond ‘business as usual’ and deliver high levels of innovation.  

If an initiative is ‘business unusual’ – a new product, technology and so on – then it is going to require some unusual perspectives, ideas and skills.   

Person team fit is a popular idea – that people should be selected for a team based on their fit. However, if everyone ‘fits right in’ then performance and innovation may suffer.  When fitting in becomes a priority, groupthink and conformity often results.

There is a requisite level of diversity1 required for problem-solving and innovation, as well as for peak performance more generally.  Specifically, tension is both a by-product and vital ingredient of high levels of performance and innovation.

Project teams must be able to balance tension and cohesion.  That requires an environment and leadership style that provides for psychological safety as well as respectful challenge.

Greater care is required in setting up a team of misfits – for example ensuring that people are in the right roles, doing the right work, etc.

However, perhaps most important of all is the definition of a shared and compelling purpose for the team – one that transcends the differences and unites the members in common cause.

  1. David Komlos & David Benjamin, Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast”, Nicholas Brealey International 2019. []

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