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Learning how to build successful teams based on history’s most successful collaborations

June 29, 2020

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
– Helen Keller

When achieving a goal – be it building a monument, running a business, or leading a breakthrough mission to new frontiers – the right team makes all the difference. Teamwork fosters an atmosphere of collective creativity, commitment, and loyalty.

Let’s examine a few successful teams, from ancient times to the recent past, to seek out best practices for use by today’s organizations. Of course, we know very well that not all of these teams were put together in a pre-planned way, nor did they pre-plan the conditions for success. But through the organic, symbiotic benefits of collaboration, they were able to achieve success that no sole contributor could manage.

Stealthy Trojan War victory

The Bronze Age conflict between the kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece and Troy is part history, part mythology, and all teamwork. After 10 grueling years of war, the cooperative spirit of dozens of Greek citizens led to unexpected victory. Sinon, a crafty warrior pulling an 80-foot-tall wooden horse, gained entry to the walled city of Troy by convincing gatekeepers he was an abandoned foot soldier. Greek artisans worked tirelessly to build the ornate peace offering within three days. And, forty selfless Greek soldiers hid silently inside the hollowed out Trojan Horse until springing into decisive action within the fortressed city. Together, the team pulled off an ambitious, risky, and legendary win.

PayPal changes the startup game

Before its 2002 acquisition by eBay, PayPal employed a group of highly innovative entrepreneurs who went on to found groundbreaking new ventures – YouTube, LinkedIn, Tesla Motors, and Yammer. The rigorous recruitment process and learning at PayPal played a role in the team members’ future success, as well as the tight social bonds that encouraged them to trust and support one another after leaving the firm. The lasting and robust camaraderie among these former colleagues helped drive their new-age success. Within Silicon Valley circles, the high-achieving team became known as the PayPal mafia.

The Royal Society: The first think tank

Granted a charter by King Charles II in 1660, the original mission of the Royal Society (of London) was the exchange of scientific and philosophic ideas and theories. Although fellows develop many great inventions in isolation, Society members gain inspiration from their surroundings and the company of brilliant peers. The Royal Society was the world’s first national scientific institution, and over the past four centuries, it has sponsored legends such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, and Stephen Hawking. The exchange of scientific papers among scholars has spurred the development of inventions that are now a seamless part of modern life. A foundation of trust, support, and respect, as well as a collective goal – the advancement of science – encourages the Society’s achievement.

What conditions enable successful teams?

When we review these examples, we can trace some common characteristics that worked well for the teams and contributed to their success.

Shared vision: The objectives of individuals align with the team vision, so efforts are unified and laser-focused. For the Royal Society, the shared vision was the advancement of science.

Balance of skills: Teams composed of members with complementary skills are the most efficient. A team structured around diverse knowledge and perspectives, as well as cultures, genders, and ages, can maximize creativity and avoid group-think.

Trust and communication: It is essential to share necessary information with team members at the right time to build trust and enable collaboration to align behind the goal.

Psychological safety: Team members need to feel comfortable expressing ideas, opinions, and concerns. Admitting personal mistakes is encouraged, as is pointing out team errors without censorship. In such a safe environment, trying new things is encouraged and fostered. The highest-performing teams are those unafraid to make mistakes. Innovation happens in a psychologically safe environment.

Supporting ecosystem: Necessary resources are vital to maintaining productivity and high morale. Strong leadership, value-based work, training, reward systems, funding, and other necessary pieces enhance team output.

Closing note

Mitigating obstacles that hinder a high-performing team is well worth the effort. Extraordinary teams translate success and failures into continuous improvement. Today’s time-pressed virtual teams thrive in an environment of commitment, trust, transparency, motivation, and collaboration – and that is good news for the strength of the overall organization.

No matter how trivial or complicated a task may be, without a strong team, few rewards are earned, battles won, or goals achieved.

To learn more on the topic, feel free to get in touch with me on social media.

The author would like to thank Pratibha Agarwal, Monika Singh, and Tamara Berry for their contributions to this article.