Extreme teams

Eric Nehrlich, over at Unrepentant Generalist, has reminded me of the book “The Wisdom of Teams“, by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, which I first read when it appeared in the early 1990s.   At the time, several of us here were managing applications for major foreign telecommunications licences for our clients – the fifth P (“Permission”) in telecoms marketing.
Before Governments around the world realized what enormous sums of money they could make from auctioning telecoms licences, they typically ran what was called a “beauty contest” to decide the winner.     In these contests, bidders needed to prepare an application document to persuade the Government that they (the bidder) were the best company to be awarded the licence.  What counted as compelling arguments differed from one country to another, and from one licence application to another.   The most common assessment criteria used by Governments were:  corporate reputation and size, technical preparedness and innovation, quality of business plans, market size and market growth, and the prospects for local employment and economic development.
As I’m sure you see immediately, these criteria are multi-disciplinary.  Licence applications were (and still are, even when conducted as auctions) always a multi-disciplinary effort, with folks from marketing, finance, engineering, operations, legal and regulatory, folks from different consortium partners, and people from different nationalities, all assigned to the one project team.  In the largest application we managed, the team comprised an average of about 100 people at any one time (people came and went all the time), and it ran for some 8 months.   In that case, the Government tender documents required us to prepare about 7,000 original pages of text in response (including detailed business plans and blue-prints of each mobile base station), multiplied by some 20 copies.    You don’t win these licences handing in coffee-stained photocopies or roneoed sheets.  Each of the 20 volumes was printed on glossy paper, hard-bound, and the lot assembled in a carved tea chest.
Work on these team projects was extremely challenging, not least because of the stakes involved.  If you miss the application submission deadline even by 5 minutes, you were out of the running.    That would mean throwing away the $10-20 million you spent preparing the application and upsetting your consortium partners more than somewhat.   If you submit on time, and you win the licence, you might see your company’s share-market value rise by several hundred million dollars overnight, simply on the news that you had a won a major overseas mobile licence.  $300 million sharevalue gain less $20 million preparation costs leaves a lot of gain.   In one case, our client’s share-market value even rose dramatically on news that they had LOST the licence!  We never discovered if this was because the shareholders were pleased that the company (not previously in telecoms) had lost and was sticking to its knitting, or were pleased that the company had tried to move into a hi-tech arena.
With high stakes, an unmovable deadline, and with different disciplines and companies involved, tempers were often loose.   One of the major differences between our experiences and those described in the Katzenbach and Smith book is that we never got to choose the team members.  In almost all cases, Governments required consortia to comprise a mix of local and international companies, so each consortium partner would choose its own representatives in the team.  Sometimes, the people assigned knew about the telecoms business and had experience in doing licence applications; more frequently, they knew little and had no relevant experience.  In addition, within each consortium partner company, internally powerful people in the different disciplines would select which folks to send.   One could sometimes gauge the opinion of the senior managers of our chances by the calibre of the people they chose to allocate to the team.
So — our teams comprised people having different languages, national cultures and corporate cultures, from different disciplines and having different skillsets and levels of ability, and sent to us sometimes for very different purposes. (Not everyone, even within the same company, wanted to win each licence application.)  Did I mention we normally had no line authority over anyone since they worked for different divisions of different companies?  Our task was to organize the planning work of these folks in a systematic and coherent way to produce a document that looked like it was written by a single mind, with a single, coherent narrative thread and compelling pitch to the Government evaluators.
Let us see how these characteristics stack up against the guidelines of Katzenbach and Smith, which Eric summarized:

  • Small size  – Not usually the case.  Indeed, many of the major licence applications could not physically or skill-wise have been undertaken by just a small team.  These projects demanded very diverse skills, under impossibly-short deadlines.  The teams, therefore, had to be large.
  • Complementary skills – Lots of different skills were needed, as I mention above.  Not all of these are complementary, though.  I am not sure how much lawyers and engineers complement each other; more often, their different styles of thinking and communicating (words vs. diagrams, respectively) and their different objectives would have them in disagreement.
  • Common purpose – In public, everyone had the same goal — to win the licence.  In private, as in any human organization, team members and their employers may have had other goals.  I have seen cases where people want to lose, to prove a point to other partners, or because they do not feel their company would be able to deal with too many simultaneous wins.   I have seen other cases where people do not want to win (not the same as wanting to lose) — they may be participating in order to demonstrate, for example, that they know how to do these applications.
  • Performance goals – Fine in theory, but very hard in practice when the team leaders do not have line responsibility (even temporarily) over the team members.
  • Common approach – Almost never was this the case.  Each consortium partner, and sometimes each functional discipline within each consortium partner had their own approach.  There was rarely time or resources to develop something mutually acceptable.  In any case, outputs usually mattered more than approach.
  • Mutual accountability – Again, almost never the case, partly due to the diversity of real objectives of team members, divisions and partners.
  • Despite not matching these guidelines, some of the licence application teams were very successful, both in undertaking effective high-quality collaborative work and in winning licences.  I therefore came away from reading “The Wisdom of Teams” 15 years ago with the feeling that the authors had missed something essential about team projects because they had not described my experiences in licence applications.  (I even wrote to the authors at the time a long letter about my experiences, but they did not deign to reply.) I still feel that the book misses much.

    1 Response to “Extreme teams”


    • I should have added that the same multi-disciplinary teams are common to due diligence exercises in hi-tech industries. My experience of these teams, however, is that they are usually not multi-company, and that their outputs are usually only for internal decision-making purposes, or intended to persuade an investor. It is usually much easier to persuade an investor than to persuade a Government.

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