Mashery's Circus Mashimus poster at SXSWi 2011
Picture the scene. There are around 4-6 people clustered around a table together.  All trying to solve a problem, all very talented… most of them creative/strategy/tech hybrids. An hour later, they’ve gone in circles several times, sure, but between them there’s light at the end of the tunnel.. a few solutions look to be within reach.  Then the school bell goes people have to head to another meeting and they agree to meet again. Except it takes a day or two to arrange the follow-up and then half an hour to remind everyone what they’re there to do. And repeat.. does this sound familiar?

There are some very smart people arguing that generalists are the future. When we have much more to do in less time, then it’s better we put together teams of people who can all spin plates, bang a drum and throw knives at the same time, right? Perhaps there are some people who are so extraordinarily talented across so many disciplines that they genuinely can claim to be the ultimate one man band; a steel-alloyed, swiss army knife of creativity. For the rest of us, I would beg to differ.

In an era of collaboration – which we’ve written about at length and repeatedly – it may feel a little strange to hear a plea here for specialism, but hear me out.

When Ben asked Are You Ready To Form Voltron? here last year, he was celebrating T-shaped people.  Yet all too often when we think T-shaped, we emphasise the bar in blue from his presentation below: the intelligent grasp of a range of different skills, married to a desire to collaborate:

T-shaped people

Yet of equal importance is the central pillar of ‘Awesome’ , or the “I” in “T”: the core skill we each bring to the table as individuals:

Saneel and I have been pondering this off and on over the past few months. Whilst Saneel’s post“Are the junior talent in advertising packaging themselves wrong?” (and a great response here from William Burks Spencer) examined the issue from the perspective of people at the start of their careers, our perspective here is that the importance of having a core, identified skill is applicable to anyone. Working together collaboratively, productively and at pace depends upon this, if we’re to avoid a) disappearing into Groupthink (when consensus rubs the edges off anything interesting), or b) wasting hours of our lives in meetings that never really end.

So, why is it worth asking yourself ‘what am I really good at?’ and what have we learned about re-focusing on the specialist skills of individuals within teams?

  1. Cast for the task. If people are asked to play a specific role and this is spelt out overtly at the start, they are much more likely to feel motivated to perform. This doesn’t negate the need for literacy in other areas. It just means everyone knows why they’re there and what they’ll be held personally accountable for.
  2. Treat ‘differences as an opportunity’.  Flow is better when you work with people who share the same goal but who have different skills to achieve it. The process isn’t just faster, it’s a whole lot more enjoyable.
  3. Respect people’s time. If different members have clearly differentiated roles and the task is defined, don’t try and solve everything in a team meeting, do something radical instead: *leave people alone* to work.
  4. Keep re-evaluating. If the same group who solved problem A can’t solve problem B, it’s likely they’ve got the wrong skills for the new task. Forcing them to sit in a room with a problem they don’t understand day after day is a sure-fire recipe for burn-out. Instead, treat everyone as a respected specialist (they may ‘part of the team’, sure, but does that mean they have the right skills for this particular task, right now?). We fear that switching in a new team member will disrupt flow, but often it’s the thing that keeps things moving.
  5. Shut up and think. We spend the first 5-10 minutes of any idea generation session writing down our own first thoughts before we get into any kind of group discussion. Bizarrely, despite sounding so simple, it takes discipline to do but it’s worked for us since we began Labs. Check out Edward Boches’ blog for more on the whys and wherefores of this technique.
  6. Give people a road-map. I don’t mean a schedule or a gant chart, although they’re critical. I mean an answer to the question, ‘how are we going to approach this task?’. For example, we’ve been using an approach that forces us to dispel the myth that there’s only one answer to any brief. More on this to follow in a separate post.
  7. Make someone responsible for making this happen. We have a job spec at BBH for a role called “Team Director”. Their job is primarily about team productivity: making sure the right people are engaged, at the right time. It takes the skill of a 3D chess player, huge charm and a deep understanding of the skills and personalities of people across several different disciplines.

If this all sounds blindingly obvious, you are, of course, correct (and please go-ahead and award yourself Zen-Titan of Team Productivity status). This is often about fine-tuning cross-functional teams that are likely to be high performing, but who need to take stock and re-evaluate how they’re working from time to time. Either way, as always we’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on what we’ve missed here. Please drop us a line and let us know.