Field Notes Vol. 1, no. 5: The Joy of Teams
Updated: Jan 27
Say the word “team” to me and the first thing I’m likely to think of is getting picked last in gym class when teams were being chosen, and inevitably hearing a whining sigh along the lines of, “Oh [expletive]! Not Nytch.” This would usually be followed by my justifying their disappointment.
Then of course there’s the dreaded group project in college. I have never spoken to a single student who has anything but utter loathing for those projects yet we educators assign them anyway, sometimes out of necessity (large classes can’t manage 30 presentations, so we do ten 3-person teams instead) or out of the belief (not without merit) that students need to learn how to work in groups – even if it drives them crazy.
But let’s face it: unless you were a star athlete growing up and/or had the rare experience of a great group project in school, you probably don’t have a very positive association with being on a team. [As one friend of mine remarked recently, “I’d do fine on teams if people weren’t so annoying.”]
But over the last few years I’ve started to have a different sort of experience with teams, and have begun to take special notice of the joy I’ve been experiencing with them. Some of these teams are working committees made up of colleagues (here on campus or further afield), where the chief joy is that of getting a bunch of smart people who respect each other into a room to accomplish a task everyone cares about. I’m on a few such committees right now and they are the rare meeting that I actually look forward to and am even a little sad when they end. (I know: how often do we say that??) As a composer, another joy-filled team experience is when I work with performers to realize a piece I’ve written: it never fails that they have insights and suggestions I’d have never thought of on my own. The process of collaboration improves the resulting music more than I can begin to measure.
In the entrepreneurial space teamwork is essential, for two reasons. The first is that a start-up venture, even if it’s a start-up of one (an independent artist, for instance), is all-encompassing. In addition to the actual product or service, there’s finances, marketing, logistics, legal stuff, taxes, and a whole other raft of things to manage. And it’s pretty much impossible for one individual to excel at all of those things. Even in the early stages when handling everything yourself might be unavoidable, you’ll still need the support, counsel, and encouragement that others can provide.
The second reason why teamwork is so important in an entrepreneurial venture has to do with one of the three key components of entrepreneurial thinking (discussed at length in my book, The Entrepreneurial Muse): flexibility and adaptability. You see, entrepreneurial ventures rarely unfold on a straight line; our early assumptions or projections may prove to be false, outside circumstances can change, or the feedback from our customers may reveal that there’s a better (or completely different) direction for us to take. A team can be critical to how we receive and respond to these curveballs, because a team represents a diversity of thought and perspective. It’s the same reason that one entrepreneur friend of mine, upon being asked about the best way to develop an entrepreneurial idea, answered, “Get together with three friends and a six-pack of beer.” Teamwork helps us get out of our own heads, stirring up the pot of our creativity and breaking down the mental “boxes” that constrain our thinking.
All of this came to mind recently due to a couple of particularly wonderful team experiences involving students. The first was with my terrific team of grad student assistants who support ECM programming and keep me from losing my mind. They keep the social media flowing, engage their fellow students, execute events, and help develop extra-curricular content for their peers. They are a talented group, and they also make me laugh on a regular basis (a quality I’m convinced is essential for a good team). This week we launch a new ECM webpage, which includes vastly enhanced content and, for our students, access to a dynamic online portal where they can find gigs, see job postings, and access a whole range of information and resources pertaining to their professional development. (You can view it here) This project would have been utterly impossible had it not been for the ECM team, and not just in terms of needing the extra hands; the ideas and creative problem-solving that went into the process were essential to the final product. Until I had them, this was only a dream. Now it’s a reality – and one that’s far better than I could have ever conceived of on my own. Go Team!
The second example took place last Thursday. (You may recall that my last Field Notes entry
focused on a presenting classroom exercise I use in my “Entrepreneurial Artist” class to my colleagues at the United States Association of Small Business & Entrepreneurship; Thursday’s class involved that exercise, an ideation game called “Cognitive Combination.”) The class divided into groups of three or four, they each picked a random noun of their own choosing, and then they drew a slip of paper with a second word from a bag. The challenge: create a product or service based on combining those two words. They have 20 minutes.
At first everyone is flummoxed. The words they picked are unrelated! How could they possibly go together? They hardly make sense! But then I encourage them to remember the reading they prepared before class (if you’re interested, check out Thomas Ward’s fantastic article, “Cognition, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship,” Journal of Business Venturing, v. 19, 2004; I can send you a PDF). Ward talks about looking beyond the literal meaning of the words and considering the attributes and associations we have with them. What properties do they exhibit? What emergent properties are revealed when we start to make these novel combinations?
Soon the room is abuzz with conversation. Ideas are flowing left and right, some good, others weak. The occasional “Ooo! Ooo! Wait, I’ve got it!!” is a delightful punctuation. I float around the room, mostly eavesdropping but occasionally offering guidance, observing the incredible creative energy of these young minds. And in the end, there were some wonderfully creative results! An all-inclusive “personal security system,” a sensory-deprivation suit for air travel, a “starter kit” for those interested in exploring crypto-currency. Whether the ideas are actually viable is not really the point; rather, it’s about helping students exercise creative problem-solving in ways they haven’t previously experienced – and to have a positive team experience that proves that multiple heads are almost always better than one.
As we adjourned I couldn’t help noticing that every single student had a broad smile on their face as they left the room. They’d learned, and they’d had fun. And for a little while, anyway, they took that energy with them out into the world.
And I thought to myself, “This is my favorite class of the year.”