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The Power of Diverse Teams

I came across a fascinating piece of diversity research recently. In an article at Forbes.com Katherine Phillips talks about a study comparing the performance of both homogenous and diverse groups.

The diverse groups reported that they didn’t work together very effectively, and they were less confident about their decisions than the homogeneous groups, yet they consistently outperformed those homogeneous groups.

And why did the diverse groups enjoy this performance benefit?

When anyone in a group has perspectives, opinions or information that vary from the consensus… the mere presence of social diversity will make them express, and others consider, those perspectives in a way that benefits the group.

Some of this sounds counterintuitive… and yet it doesn’t surprise me greatly. For one, it’s consistent with my experience in fostering the growth of powerful teams. But also it’s consistent with my appreciation and study of modern music and musical groups.

This appreciation began for me when The Beatles burst upon the American musical scene in the early sixties. Unlike most other musical artists of the era, there was no separation between front man and backup band. It was not “Buddy Holly and the Crickets,” but simply “The Beatles.” And radio DJs of the era often referred to them as “John, Paul, George and Ringo” rather than by the group’s collective name. This was not just in recognition of their popularity, but an appreciation of the fact that all four members of the group, despite their obviously different personalities, perspectives and roles, were in fact equals.

The Beatles Anthology later reported the tough decision John Lennon had to make when first forming the fledgling rock group.

Was it better to have a guy who was better than the people I had in? To make the group stronger, or to let me be stronger? Instead of going for an individual thing we went for the strongest format – equals.

But did this mean that The Beatles were models of efficiency in the recording studio? Hardly. After the breakup of The Beatles, Ringo recounted for Rolling Stone magazine the contrast between working as part of a group of equals vs. hiring a backup group.

Pete [Drake] was in London for George’s album. Somehow he ended up in my car and saw all these country tapes. He said I ought to go to Nashville and do an album. But I thought, “Oh no, I don’t want to go to Nashville for six months.” Because that’s what it used to always take us to do an album – six months.

But Pete said, “What do you mean, six months? We did Nashville Skyline in two days.” Two days? I couldn’t believe it….

This was not just the experience of The Beatles, but of many rock groups of the era. In Levon Helm’s story of The Band, he recounts Rick Danko’s thoughts on the nature of their group.

Young Rick was insistent. “Why can’t we have a band,” he asked, “where everybody plays an instrument, everybody sings, everybody does it without some guy out in front of the thing running the show and deciding the way things are gonna go?” This was a radical notion, like communism. But maybe, I thought, for the first time in our or anyone’s imagination, the rhythm section could run the band!

This same egalitarian, collaborative spirit is present in jazz as well. As Wynton Marsalis said in his book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life:

Jazz is the most flexible art form ever because it believes in the good taste of individuals. It believes in our ability to make reasonable choices. It takes a chance on our decision-making skills instead of legislating our freedom away with written restrictions and restrictive hierarchies. In jazz, the size of your heart and your ability to play determine your position in the band. The philosophy of jazz is rooted in the elevation and enrichment of people, plain ol’ folks.

One of my greatest lessons in leadership came when hearing and seeing Miles Davis perform at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor in 1970. For what I remember most clearly today is not the playing of the great jazz trumpeter himself, but the way he moved to the side of the stage between solos, restlessly pacing in the shadows, making way for this team of equals he had formed, including some of the greatest talent of that or any era – John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Airto Moreira – to collectively form the complex and challenging music that was taking shape as we all watched and listened.

And so as I’ve grown over time from individual contributor to manager, and moved from one assignment to the next, I’ve come to believe that my greatest contributions as a leader are to make sure that each team includes diverse voices, that each of those voices has a chance to be heard, that we avoid easy answers based on assumed consensus, and that we all recognize that our collective wisdom is greater than the smarts of any one of us on our own.

In other words, as the boss, I try to always remember the hard-learned lesson of The Boss:

The trick in keeping bands together is always the same: “Hey, ______, the guy standing next to you is more important than you think he is.”

In my experience, this is the trick not only to keeping teams together, but to helping them reach higher levels of performance.

March 24, 2012

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