Teams of Uniqueness

Often, the most powerful concepts are seemingly contradictory. They contain two opposing ideas or facts. One of my favorite examples is what I refer to as Teams of Uniqueness. Here are the two opposite ideas:

  1. It takes a team of people working together and blending together to achieve big things.
  2. It takes very specific individual talents, very unique individual contributions to achieve big things.

So which is it? A team of people sacrificing for each other or an individual with wildly unique skills? I have found that it is actually both. A team of people without some very strong individual skills or a very talented person working without others does not tend to lead to the most successful outcomes.

In the 1990s, I loved to watch the Chicago Bulls play basketball on TV. I was fascinated by how their legendary coach Phil Jackson could weave such individually talented characters together into one dominant team. Watching Dennis Rodman rebound along side Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr and the rest of that team was fantastic. Rodman led the NBA in rebounds per game for a record seven consecutive seasons. His unique ability to rebound was a fundamental part of their team winning games and championships. Phil Jackson's ability to recognize this idea of individuals and teams continues to instruct me.

I marvel at how different each player was. They each had very specific styles, personalities and talents - each totally unique. And they each continuously got better at their own unique contribution.

At the same time, the team working together played to the highest level. It was like watching an orchestra when they would get in those tight NBA Finals games. Each player was blended into the whole so well it was hard to see where one person left off and the other started.

Opposing concepts: Individual talent and teamwork. There is tension between the two. In software development it takes both as well. Individuals with very specific talents are crucial to success. Yet so are groups of people working together. Success is found in the rare combination of the two. Leading and managing them both is a lot like coaching. You need to find and encourage individuals to be the best that they can be at their unique skill set. You also need to spend time communicating to the team as to why the group effort is important, how sticking together creates victory and encourage them to be honest about the natural tension that occurs in all teams.

Celebrate individual talent, as it is not at odds with teamwork. And celebrate team success; it does not have to cost people their unique identities. Like Dennis Rodman, people can continue to paint their hair red (or green or orange) and the team can still be a winning team. As a matter of fact, success depends on it.

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