The Power of Teams

How do we accomplish the impossible?

How do we make a big idea come alive? How do we make something that never existed before real? Everyone will be asked at least once (although as project managers it seems like everyday) to make the seemingly undoable, doable. Under impossible conditions and overwhelming odds, we will be challenged to make crazy asks, happen.

In 1990, at the age of twenty-one, I was lucky enough to land my first job with a small creative marketing firm, where I was equally lucky enough to encounter my first mentor, Curt. Through the years, Curt would impart many, valuable lessons. He believed in creating a culture that support self-organized teams, where everyone was valued, contributed, played a role and helped each other to problem solve.

It was a collective of people that were united, passionate and full of energy. They loved to make stuff, whether for a client or themselves. It was that passion and constant activity that seemed to provide a never ending boost for everyone.

It felt like a home.

In a way, it was that familiarity that made things happen. That made what was often thought of as impossible, possible. By working repeatedly with the same people, they gained a deeper understanding of each other.

They share experiences, they worked closely together, they developed nonverbal ways of working, and made up words. 

You see, the culture of a great team can be infectious, (and often taken for granted) but at this small marketing company, as they grew over time, they maintained that natural inclusiveness, that respect and trust for each other was rock solid. Incorporating someone new seemed ef- fortless, because everyone knew where they were going and how they would get there, and if they didn’t they would figure out together.

At my second job, (the big awakening of my youth) the culture of teams was almost non-existent. It was a much larger company, and even with a well known creative name on the door, the concept of teams seemed vague at best. In the past, they had lots of big personalities and great ideas but the execution of work seemed very difficult.

I could have given up.

I’m sure many of us would have, or have not taken the job to begin with. Different size companies, different organizational cultures, different ways of working. Different support systems. So, for me the role became, how do I replicate at least part of that small team structure in this new, silo’d environment?

How far could I push this organization to change? How far could I push myself to change. How far would this organization push me to change? Would I be able to emulate how a small creative group works in a much larger environment. Are things set so deeply, culturally, that the organization or even my department might not be open to new ways of working. Would I even be able to emulate even a part of that feeling of “team” or even “family” within this larger organization.

I knew the importance of strong teams. I experienced it first hand. I saw it everyday. I knew that the benefits of working in teams far out-weighed the continuation of the current silo’d organization process..

Creative agencies deal with very complex client asks. It’s not just about producing content, a campaign or website anymore. It’s about working with clients so they reach & meet their strategic business and marketing goals. It is a marrying of creative, innovation and technology between brands and consumers. In order to meet these client asks, there is immense value in building multidisciplinary team that can understand creative problem solving from various perspectives. 

Effective creative solutions are not formed by singular thinking, they require many different perspectives and views to come together.

Therefore, you can’t always manage projects with vision, or one perspective. In a great team, you get the collective problem solving knowledge and experience of a relevant group of folks who have different perspectives and views. If you want to do great work, and be innovative, you have to harness the craziness and passion that comes from the dialog of different perspectives and views. Would would Dale Chihuly's glass sculptures and installations look like without his team of glassblowers? Would we have Tom Coughiln and Bill Belichick without Bill Parcells?

In 2017, our creative exercises are no longer coordinating a writer and an art director to create an ad. Similar to larger organizations, creative firms rely on a diverse group, we have business strategists, technologists, big data analytics, software developers, e-commerce specialists, newsroom like content production, social media experts, in-house production teams, data scientists and so on.

So imagine the perspective you get in this creative world, imagine how all of these different views contribute to ideation. Imagine how your company has this wide range of views, perspectives and experts. This is why, organizations that have a culture steeped in teamwork and collaboration, who really maximize the strengths of these relevant individuals, become the ones that are truly innovative.

But having organizational vision for this team based culture is not enough. The organization can help define it’s vision, it’s mission, it’s values, and it’s roles & processes. However, it is project managers and project leaders that have direct influence over how projects and teams operate behaviorally. Project leaders decide, mold, and shape how their groups function, how their teams are structured. The real culture of in- novation begins to happens down at this level.

At my second job, I felt overwhelmed at first, because I thought I had to wait for large organizational, mission defining changes to occur before I could shift to more collaborative ways of working. Once I saw that I was capable of creating change within my executional group of project leaders, it became easier to work with agency leadership on some other organizational wide changes.

I created change by looking for ways to build new behaviors to match those values. Beyond the stated values on a corporate website or annual report, their are many common values that we as group in the workplace. Respect, accountability, transparency, clear communication, fairness, and having empathy are just a short list of common values that many of us hold. They are also values that when we look at teams in the real world, beyond corporate land it can be easy for us to identify with.

We see examples of great teams everyday. In the sports teams that we love, in the organizations that inspire us and in the people and professions around us.

We want to work in teams, we want to be a part of teams, we cheer for them, and we like to celebrate in their success. We are inspired by teams.

There was a study done by Harvard University, in 2006, that showed the performance of heart surgeons improved over time when working at their main hospital surrounded by their usual team. It showed that by working repeatedly with the same people, you get to know their strengths and weaknesses; you have shared experiences to draw on; and you develop unspoken habits and rules that aid your mutual understanding.

We wouldn’t often think about surgeons this way. That the whole operating team can have such a profound effect.

In all strong teams, there are shared values, a strong sense of purpose and a sense of belonging, familiarity and community.

In creative land, we want to do great work, we want to win awards, we want to be recognized, we want to be heard, we want to contribute to the creative process, we want to do cool stuff, we want to work with cool clients, we want to work with cool people.

However, if we want to build strong creative teams, we can build on those values.

As project managers, the people who are in charge of creating that project structure around making stuff — values are what we use to get agreement on what’s important, beyond deadlines, beyond costs. It defines what quality means or when something is even good or great or garbage.

If a team cares about common values, then they can share a common purpose. As a leader you can build team cohesion by tying together ways of working that support the shared purpose and those values.

As the group of folks that are in charge of executing stuff, we have direct input into molding and shaping values that not only become the heart of the teams we work with, but within the larger organization itself. So here is a new responsibility to add to your job description, in addition to everything else you do as a project manager, be aware that you are builders of community.

Not only do you shape how work gets done, but you shape that experience of work and culture.

In strong team based cultures, there are certainly values that will pro- duce more effective ways of working than others. For example, if every member is equally respected, if leadership is distributed, if we can listen with an open mind… then the team is able to work towards its goal with less direction and intervention. Which means more time, that project managers can spend on other relevant activities.

Research has shown us that, the power of teams, this “collective intelligence” we’ve been talking about here comes from these value based behaviors.

The effectiveness of teams does not come from, how many individually smart people you have on the team or their collective IQs, it is really how well the team social interacts.

In directed teams, we set a task and off the person goes and waits for the next one. In self organized teams, where the team shares leadership and activity setting, individuals contribute to what comes next and no one is waiting to be told what to do.

It takes courage to work this way, especially as a leader. The project management role in teams adjusts a bit to become one of facilitation, and taking down barriers for the team so that great execution happens, rather than being someone who just delegates tasks.

In my first job, I loved coming to work because of that strong team based culture. In my second job, at first, not so much. But, I did have the choice and the opportunity to recreate the team environment that I wanted.

It takes effort and planning and perseverance. It’s an ongoing effort to monitor the social aspects, but the value of building and having a great team or set of greats teams trumps the prior poor quality of work.

When other people in the organization see the results and benefits of real teams. Guess what, it gets recognized, because they want to work that way too, they want that similar sense of community. They see the results, they see the innovation, they see the inclusiveness.

How does team leadership differ?

Let’s take a look at the different models of working of a single leader directed team versus this concept of a self-directed team model.

Basic project management starts simple. You have no real say in the team, as members report to their departments. You are basically telling them what you need. You have very little control over who you can choose on your team. Department heads control their people. This is the weakest form of project management, as often your asks will conflict with department head priorities. We often call this form of project management "traffickers." 

In traditional project management, you may have a dedicated team, or you share leadership with functional department heads (we we call a matrix). Project objectives are from you to the individual folks. You assign tasks to folks who are the most competent to do those tasks, and you are concerned over an individuals output in completing that task. Individuals are accountable for pretty much what you tell them to do.

In traditional project management, communication is top down, from leader to individual members. In a self-directed team, communication is across all team members.

In traditional project management, you may focus more on individual skills, because they are not working so closely. In a self-directed team, you have to focus on building an entire team that has complementary skills. So the social aspect is stable. You rely on individual output and individual accountability. In a self-directed team, people produce a col- lective work and share mutual accountability.

In traditional project management, you direct and delegate. In a self-directed team, there is leadership among the team since you share it, that shifts as the progress changes.

In integrated teams, functional leadership disappears, the project manager has control over choosing his/her team or resources. Integrated teams are very similar to teams in an agile working environment. They may not use all of the ceremonies of agile, but they are designed for creating group insights, following methodologies like design thinking (and select agile processes like scrums). Project leaders select a team based on how they complement each other. The group works collectively and share accountability. Team leadership is often shared with other team members or the group as a whole.

In agile teams, project leadership is seen as limited to a more supportive role. Let’s compare traditional project leadership and integrated teams. Agile teams are focused on iteration, learning and iteration. Pushing something out fast, seeing what works, improving it and repeating the process. As a group they share leadership. Teams form as complementary members, to seek mutual goals. They build collective work, just like an integrated team and share accountability, similar to an integrated teams. In a self-directed team, the objectives are focused on creating breakthrough in performance and for group insight.

So, different styles of project management and team leading — produce different thinking and different results. However, if I’m looking to be innovative and I want a team to support creative problem solving, I’ll support the structure of integrated or agile teams (where the team comes together to decide what to do) every time.

Why self-organized teams are powerful.

Self-Organized teams communicate better, because they collaborate more, they share ideas more because their work is complimentary with the larger goals the team has set for itself.

Self-Organized teams function better because there is a sense of a better quality of work-life. They function more democratic, which mimic a sense of team play. Happy team, happy productive and engaged team. I get to chose what I work on, I get to be heard.

Self-Organized teams allow for greater synchronization of work. I know what your doing, I know what I’m doing, can we work on this together, hey have you thought about this.

Self-Organized teams take advantage of multiple perspectives and backgrounds of employees to provide a deeper level of understanding of the problem, shaping potential solutions that consider many different views.

This is the power of teams. It’s creating a team to problem solve through the unknown.

How to manage collective ideas in teams.

Consider your desired outcome.

Recognize that the power of teamwork comes from the collective group, it’s cohesion and combined energy, focused on common goal. When you think about your team, consider the tasks that they might have to ac- complish. Match team member skills with the tasks. Consider personali- ties of team members, and if they complement each other.

Lead by values

Several years ago, I was consulting for a medical communications com- pany. The work they outputted there was kind of dry. One of their core services was to produce presentations for pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies to doctors groups and hospital networks. As I mentioned, you can imagine it’s not the most creative work. When I 

had them in a group meeting, I went around the room and asked them, “Tell me what you do.”

Each person replied with pretty much the same answer, “We provide medical communications, presentations and meeting organization for pharmaceuticals and medical device companies, in a D to D and B to B environments.”

I stared into space for a while. I looked at the group and said,”No that’s not what you do.”

“You, save lives.” “You are life savers.”

I looked at the furrowed brows in response. I said, “Look, if you don’t do your job, if you don’t write convincingly or create an engaging presenta- tion, then this potential new life saving drug or medical procedure will never get used in the hospital, and never get used with a patient.” “When you do your job well, these drugs and services will get adopted and a patient’s life may saved.”

“You are not a writer, you are not a designer, you help save lives.” Now, that’s a big statement to make, right?

But if I told you that story as a new member of this team.“ That we save lives.” What might be some of the behavior shift I might get from you?

Values are important, they shape outcomes and behaviors. This brings us to…

Ensure you have the right people, with multidisciplinary views.

An effect team has the necessary team members not only to do the job, but to provide the right perspective and experience to the project. Make sure that your team brings different views together for a broad prospec- tive on your project. If you find that you don’t have enough diversity, bring in people for the group to work with, interview or consult with.

I kind of look at this as fantasy football. Who are the team members that I want, who can I get in defense, and offense. If I pick that quarterback my whole offensive line may have shift. This the same thinking that you need to have.

Delegate, and work towards self-organization.

Once you have your team and outline expectations. Work with them to roadmap and scope the project. Let individuals commit to tasks within the group. Facilitate decision making. Have the group decide how they are going to work and create “rules of the road” how people are going to chose to work within this group for this project. Avoid telling members of the team what to do and how to do it. Your job is to set goals, remove obstacles, gain access and provide support for the team so they can achieve those goals.

Rules of the Road

Have your team decide the “rules of the road.” Who is responsible for what, how often they are going to meet, how they are going to com- municate, what tools they are going to need and use. How many times a week are you going to meet, are you going to use a project management tool, which ones and how. Who might lead parts of the project, when are you going to review work, how might we help each other. By establishing rules up front that the group agrees on, you can hold them accountable, and the rest of the team can hold them accountable.

Monitor Progress

Ideally, once you’ve picked the team, road mapped the project and set team expectations, you should be good to go. In the real world, guess what, monitoring progress is an active thing you need to do. However, you alone should not decide for the group. There may be times when you need to step in and inform, but make sure you build a forum where the team comes together to talk and share concerns, successes, and where they are on a project on a regular basis. It’s important to maintain that healthy social structure.


At the heart of innovation and collective idea building is trial and error. Use different forms of prototyping to give and gain team feedback, or provide a forum for collective problem solving. Make a model, use paper, create a preliminary anything that will give people an idea of a potential solution. Keep group ideas transparent, let team members do show and tell. So you are not going too far down a wrong path.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback.

Never wait to give feedback. People need it, the team needs it, and you need it, if something needs to be said, say it. Listen for what is said and unsaid. Giving regular feedback makes it easier for other people to bring up potentially difficult conversations to the table.

If you want to maintain a individuals health in a group setting as well, this is how you do it. People need constant feedback if they are not already getting it.

Celebrate success, celebrate failure.

It’s important to build in time where the team can come together collec- tively to share stories, thinking, experience and different points of view. When you have a great group, people need these types of experiences to keep going and to build camaraderie and build a sense of community. It’s also important to maintain a positive attitude. As a project leader people will take their cues from you. If you want them to overcome ob- stacles, then you have a constructive attitude.

Have Courage.

In the 90s, I had an opportunity to work with, George Lois. He often talks about the concept of courage. He says, and I’m paraphrasing here, “The more innovative you are the more courageous you have to be— and the more trouble your going to be in.” That you are going to need courage to see things through, to be willing to go through a lot to get where you want to be and what you believe needs to get done.

For some of us, courage comes easier than for others. In many organizations it can get beaten out of us. These are places we want to avoid. To build a great team, you need to build a culture and a place that accepts that courage.

Courage needs to come from everyone. Your team members not only need to learn how to inquire, but how to actively listen, and to advocate for their point of view. 

Your disruptors and extroverts are going to have a voice. But often that gets replaced by your underdogs and minority voices as the project progresses. These introverts need to have a voice. They may need your help and courage too.

However, you need both extroverts and introverts on a team. You need the diversity. You also need courage, because this diversity will bring with it not only the richness of perspectives but perhaps the social stuff that comes with diversity and conflict and working through a meeting of minds.

As a team leader, you are the social architect, creating a space where people are willing to share, themselves, their talents and passions. It’s about creating that learning environment, where discovery is paramount.

Where you try stuff, experiment and see what happens. It’s about having the courage to pursue trial and error and the messiness that it some- times creates.

It’s about being able to doubt how things were done before? Can you be curious, can you encourage it?

Can you be open to what the group and this team might come up with? Can you not be afraid to question why and I ask why not?

Can you be comfortable with not being the one who has all the answers, or the best ideas or solutions?

As an individual, you have to become a peer in this team environment.

In a team situation, your entire team needs to have courage, to be able to talk to each other as openly as possible. One crazy thought from a team member, might lead to someone iterating the idea with a slightly less crazy thought, and someone else can add to that thought. soon, the un-doable is very doable.

As a team leader you need to create a space and community where everyone is willing and able to bring creativity and knowledge and their insight to the table. As a team leader you should find yourself listening a lot more than speaking. Indeed, the last thing you want to do is shut down someone who needs your support to speak his or her mind.

While this diversity of ideas and points of views drives innovation, its going to get heated. Competing ideas and thoughts are going to get amplified. Your balance as an advocate is the ability to listen to others so that this chaos can be constructive.

Earlier we spoke about the value of experimentation. Learn to use prototyping and other methodologies of intervention to move beyond conflicts. You’ll learn what works, what doesn’t work quickly. Even if the outcome is negative, the team still learns something.

Encourage team learning.

Constant group learning allows for all kinds of thinking to go on, to provide you the team with a rich decision making process that allows for more than one solution to arise. Or even to decide if this original ask was the right problem to solve.

As a leader, recognize that this type of problem solving creates active insights that provide value, to the team, the organization and to your consumers — turning an abstract idea into a valued real world execu- tion.

As your teams grow, seek these behaviors, to transform the quality of life for your teams and the culture of the organization. When you have pro- cesses and methods to look at solving the impossible asks, your projects don’t necessarily die, because you’ve worked together in a multidisci- plinary way to solve it.

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Ed is the founder of Makr Consulting, an organizational development group for creative organizations.

Ed BurgoyneComment