Is Too Much of The Same A Bad Thing When Building A Team?
Have you ever noticed how groups of people seem to break into smaller groups at functions? These smaller groups typically have something in common that helps to bring them together. Could be a perspective about life, religion, diet or potential commonality. These commonalities help people to feel more comfortable and accepted by the groups of which they are a member. Now, let’s say these small groups need to accomplish a task. The commonalities may allow the group to perform well by working together more easily at first, their thinking may be very similar. However, since these groups just formed, they have not had the time to understand if their commonalities are superficial or run much deeper. If there are gaps in commonalities at the deeper level, they may turn into very divisive behaviors among group members. Noam Wasserman explored the topic of Homogenous teams in his book “The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup” and discussed his findings around the benefits of teams with commonalities and those with more diversity.
As a high school student, I remember attempting to join the soccer team. There were try-outs where performance was evaluated to determine best skilled and best social fit for the team. I was irritated at times when I could see the selection of a team member resulted from social reasons more than skills. I clearly observed players that were much more skilled, but did not get selected. On the other hand, I also saw players selected that were very talented, but consistently irritated many of the other team members. I was not as self-aware in high school as I am today and did not understand the team member selection tactics employed by coaches. Sure, there were some coaches that made selections for all the wrong reasons, but the seasoned coaches with many successful seasons behind them were following their own set of guidelines. These guidelines reflect Wasserman’s observations and findings regarding Homogenous vs Diverse teams. Team members that are more similar can potentially move faster in the beginning, but may risk redundant skills and perspectives (Wasserman, 2012). Bonnie Swain Schindly provided examples how companies utilized diversity to deliver improved results and identified four ways diverse teams bring value: Comfort Zones, Catalyst, Inclusion and Results (Schindly). I personally use the term ‘catalyst’ regularly when speaking about change and value of diversity.
I learned about diversity of teams during my time in the Army. The Army drove a consistent message for me, “Everyone is Green and a Soldier.” This message was to reflect the perspective of a non-racial and non-gender based environment. There are situations where color of skin and gender are important, but overall the focus of accomplishing a mission is about leading and motivating a team to deliver against objectives. This environment is quite interesting now that I compare it with Wasserman’s observations about teams (Wasserman, 2012). In the Army, you get who you are given and it is up to you as a leader to identify how to motivate and lead them to do their best. In the civilian world, people get to make choices about their team members. I found that the diversity of a team provided great insight and skills when tackling challenges. I could assign people to activities that best fit their skills and experience. If everyone on my team had been the same, it would have been more difficult to deal with different types of activities. However, in alignment with some of Wasserman’s cautions around diversity, the teams in the Army did take more time to build alignment and trust because of the diversity in thought and perspectives (Wasserman, 2012).
There are considerations that must be included when building a team. In the case of starting a company, it is likely best to consider looking deeper into the people you may include. Wasserman talks about Tangible Factors and Intangible Factors in his book (Wasserman, 2012). It would be beneficial to understand more than the outward facing thoughts and behaviors of potential team members. These Intangible Factors, those below the surface and behind the scenes, could become quite challenging as a company progresses and encounters more challenges. Knowing a person’s position around decision making, risk tolerance, value system and Commitment could help ensure better alignment in the longer term (Wasserman, 2012).
Weighing the different perspectives, I think there is value in having a combination of both homogenous and diverse team members when starting a company. There is value in having similar, possibly more trusted people around you when starting a new venture. Also, bringing in the diversity of others will potentially help to identify and mitigate challenges that were not seen or predicted. However, in the end I feel the important piece is trust. Homogenous or diverse, you need people you can trust if you plan to build something.
Schindly, Bonnie. (2017). Diversity in the Workplace in a Homogeneous Population, Retrieved from https://woman.thenest.com/diversity-workplace-homogeneous-population-17168.html
Wasserman, N. (2012). The founder’s dilemmas: Anticipating and avoiding the pitfalls that can sink a startup. Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press.