What meal would your team be?

What makes a team truly great? What are the qualities which allow some teams to perform at a high level while others seem trapped? One approach to this question is to consider a team as though they were a meal. Thinking metaphorically, we ask what are the ingredients that make a great team and how might we combine them to produce the best results?

Some teams are like a stew. Each member of the team has their unique qualities, their particular strengths and peculiarities. A good stew combines diverse ingredients into a single pot with the result being a meal that always tastes exactly like stew. The mixing and blending of flavours in a stew is so complete that it becomes difficult to see the contribution of individual ingredients. Teams are like stews when the individual differences melt away and the team becomes a heterogeneous blend. There is minimal tension, very few arguments, no conflicting opinions and everyone seems to be working from the same page. Such a team can be a pleasant place to work. It can be very supportive and individual weaknesses are blended over by the cohesion of the team.

A team that has morphed into a stew is the sort of place where innovation goes to die. New ideas seem to sink down into the stew and disappear with little evidence to be seen in the overall flavour and texture. New members are inevitably indoctrinated into the “way things have always been”. Fresh perspectives and voices that challenge the status quo have little hope of transformation. Stew like teams are dangerous in times of rapid and uncertain change. They lack the flexibility required to adapt as circumstances change and new opportunities emerge. So deeply ingrained is the flavour of a stew that it is perhaps easier to throw out the whole pot and start again. If that is not possible, then maybe the only solution is to consistently add more and more of the one transformative ingredient until its flavour begins to overwhelm the otherwise inescapable last of stew.

Some teams are like a freshly tossed salad. Such teams are almost the complete opposite of our previous example, the stew. In a salad, each ingredient stands on its own. The contribution of each ingredient is clearly evident. Each ingredient adds its unique personality to the salad and as you add fresh ingredients to the mix the possibilities widen. Salads are adaptable and can be easily remixed and rearranged in new combinations. In a team that is like a salad diversity is evident, many perspectives are shared and the voices of individuals are heard.

A team that is like a salad can be a great place to work. The culture of such a team can be very dynamic and responsive. Individuals are able to find their place and with little need to “fit in” that individuality is readily expressed. Arguments can be difficult to deal with and tensions can be left to fester or frequently explode as there are few normative pressures. A salad like team can be a place that generates new ideas in abundance but is unable to move from divergent ideation to convergent transformation. Everyone has an idea but no one is willing to give an inch to achieve consensus. A salad can also be a place where there is little support for individual weaknesses. The observation that one bad egg can ruin a salad applies also to teams that are salad like. It is also too easy for one ingredient to dominate. A single overpowering ingredient in the team or too much of one type of ingredient can result in an imbalance that is difficult to address.

Some teams are like “meat and two sides”. A good simple meal with minimal fuss and easy preparation. The standard fair of pubs and clubs the world over. A team becomes like “meat and two sides" when it is centred on one talented and dominant member. In teams like this the ideas, thinking and bulk of the work is done by one member. Take that one member away and you are left with an almost empty plate, a vacuum that needs to be filled. Without the meat on the plate the two sides have little to offer, they were always secondary to the main show and merely basked int its glory.

A team that is like “meat and two sides” will only be as strong as its dominant member. It will be for the most part well managed and will get the job done. In the right circumstances where the challenges of the day fall within the areas of strength of this dominant individual the team will run smoothly. The two sides add a certain something and so long as they know their place and are content with playing along with the dominant team member disputes will be avoided. When the challenges are beyond the scope of the dominant member, even if they may have been addressed by one of the sides moving into a more substantial role the team is unlikely to succeed.

Of course the range of meal which we might select as a metaphor for our teams is endless. The trick is to know what type of team we have and what type of team we might need. Just as there are times when our culinary needs are well served by a tasty stew there will be times when a team with stew like properties fulfils our needs; unless change is likely. There will be times when a salad is perfect while at other times a good serve of fish and chips might be best. By closely scrutinising, understanding and valuing the team we have; by knowing each individual ingredient and the combinations made possible we begin to plan a successful meal (team).

By Nigel Coutts