Sunday, January 29, 2012

Teamwork


On Friday, we had a big meeting at the Center to discuss the technology application that is used by many of our operating projects to manage cases and track compliance. It could have been a contentious meeting. After all, it brought together people from different departments (research, technology, administration, operations) to discuss frustrations with the information system. And certainly there were moments of disagreement. But the spirit in the room was respectful and non-defensive and collaborative.

It made me think about the recent New Yorker piece by Jonah Lehrer on teamwork. Lehrer suggests that traditional brainstorming, in which individuals are taught not to critique each other's contributions, doesn't really work.

How do you establish an institutional culture that encourages creativity? How do you mold teams that put the talents of individual stars to use for the greater good of the whole? I'm not so arrogant to believe that I know the answers to these questions, but I do think about them a lot.

Here are my three favorite (sports) teams of all time:

1991-92 Washington Redskins: A truly dominant team that finished 17-2 and beat its opponents by an average of nearly 3 touchdowns a game on the way to winning Super Bowl XXVI. I had the pleasure of going to the game in person since it happened to be played in my wife's home state of Minnesota. While this team deserves to be remembered alongside the '86 Bears, '08 Patriots, '90 Niners, and the '93 Cowboys as the best of my lifetime, I fear that they will never receive their due because they lacked superstar players. Instead of Manning or Brady or Montana or Favre, they were led by Mark Rypien. In all honesty, Rypien was nowhere near as good as these hall-of-fame QBs. In fact, he was kind of goofy and awkward. But for one season, he was truly great, particularly when it came to throwing deep to Gary Clark. Go back and check the videotape if you doubt me.

2004-5 Arsenal: In 2003-04, Arsenal went through the entire league unbeaten, the first and only time that's ever been done in England. And while I have deep affection for that team, I find that it is the following year that sticks in my mind. Arsenal brought back basically the same squad in 04-05, but added two great young players to the mix: Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas. While they won the FA Cup, they finished 2nd in the league and were eliminated by Bayern Munich in the early stages of the Champions League. So I think you could argue that they probably were under-achievers in the end. Still, they played unbelievably beautiful football and had great chemistry on the pitch with players like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Viera seemingly reading each other's minds. They also moved from defense to offense as quickly as any team I can remember. The highlight for me was the home victory over Middlesborough, when they somehow managed to go 3-1 down only to score 4 brilliant goals in the last quarter of the game to transform a nail-biter into a laugher.

1998-99 New York Knicks: This was the Knicks team that finished 8th during the regular season and just squeaked into the playoffs before going on a magical run that ended with defeat to the Spurs in the NBA Finals. The appeal of this team was that it was a classic underdog story, succeeding in the face of long odds. Patrick Ewing was their best player, but he was often injured so the team had to rely on Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell for points. (This also gave the team a comeback angle, since Sprewell had recently been suspended for physically assaulting a coach and was viewed as a pariah in many quarters.) The thing that tipped the scales and made me love this Knicks team was their coach, Jeff Van Gundy, who was almost unfailingly smart and funny in his interactions with the media. In a weird way, Van Gundy embodied that Knicks team: he was underrated by many (including the management of the Knicks, who wanted to fire him) because he wasn't a big-time player when he was younger and he looked more like Woody Allen than Pat Riley. Still, at the end of the year, there was no denying his quality.