Making a Dream Team: How Healthy Friction Fuels Innovation

What are the differences between teams that break down and teams that break through? Author Shane Snow explains why diversity of thought, cognitive friction, and humility are essential for innovation and building a strong team culture.

A group of immigrants who introduce new ideas to a community. An improv comedy team that builds on a story. An office of coworkers who debate ideas. What do these three seemingly disparate things have in common? Well, according to Shane Snow, author of “Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart,” they’re all examples of how friction, if managed properly, leads to breakthrough innovation.

Snow spoke with us at Workday Rising about what makes teams successful and how to create a culture that leads to innovation. Sharing historical examples, he identified the complex nuances that make the difference between groups that break down and groups that break through. Snow says diversity of thought, cognitive friction, and humility—the ability to value the group goal over personal ego and personal agenda—are essential for innovation and building a strong team culture.

As a matter of fact, the article you’re reading right now is an example of how different perspectives can make a better final product. The interviewer, Josh Krist, had the initial conversation with Shane Snow, and Ellen Murphy, who edited the transcript, was able to focus on what’s likely most important for the reader. Read on to learn insights from Shane Snow.

Shane, how did you become interested in breakthrough teams?

Originally, I was interested in immigrant behavior and how that influences innovation and affects immigrants positively or negatively. When immigrants move to a new place, there’s immediately an element of fear and rejection. But also, cities with a lot of immigrants tend to have a lot of patents. It was very interesting to me how going from one place to another makes people more open. And, how it forces people to do things more creatively and inject something new.

I discovered the immigrant behavior concept applies to people moving from one business field to another, too. For example, when physicist Freeman Dyson was in his eighties he decided to study game theory. With no game theory background, he solved the prisoner’s dilemma using physics, something people thought was impossible. Like an immigrant going to a new country, he went to another field. He brought knowledge from his field, upset some people, and solved a problem that had stumped game theory experts for decades.

Embracing different ways of thinking can lead to great innovation. But when diversity of thought is ignored that can cause challenges for those bringing the new perspective. If differing viewpoints are not valued, unsolved problems remain just that—unsolved.

How have you seen immigrant behavior play out in company settings?

In my own company, I saw immigrant-like behavior and the associated cognitive friction as the company grew. Team members came from different places and had trouble communicating. My role as a leader was to facilitate the connections between team members of different backgrounds and communication styles.

For example, the German head of product and Korean head of design communicated differently. Not just vocabulary wise; sometimes how the head of product spoke felt insensitive to the head of design, but he’d have no idea. He’d learn about it and apologize, and they went on to have a good relationship. They were kind to each other but also didn’t know what to make of each other sometimes. Sometimes their ideas would crash together, and if they didn’t explode, they came up with great ideas.

Other people in my company with different perspectives exhibited immigrant behavior and cognitive friction through healthy debates. Being inclined to debate myself, I’d inadvertently created an atmosphere where employees felt safe debating. While this sparked more creativity, hurt feelings happened too. That’s why it’s important to constantly reinforce the idea that everyone’s marching forward on a shared mission.

How can leaders establish a culture where team members feel comfortable sharing ideas?

Leaders need to lead by example with intellectual humility and own that they can be wrong and don’t have all the answers. They have to be open to changing their mind, admitting when they do, and sharing stories of learning. Adopting the habit of consistently reinforcing that it’s okay to be wrong can be powerful for teams.

Using the “yes, and . . .” philosophy of improv comedy is also a helpful approach. In improv, when a group makes up a story, someone will say something like, “Look, it’s an alien.” The job of the team is not to say, “No, it’s not an alien, it’s a dog.” It’s to say, “Yes, and the alien looks like your dog.” The philosophy is to build on and twist the ideas of others rather than shutting them down. Listening to ideas and finding something in them reinforces the notion that even an idea that isn’t used is helpful to consider. That creates a culture where ideas are heard and valued.

Taking micro opportunities to include people and help them feel they belong sets a safe stage, too. For example, talking with a team member you’re friends with while the rest of your team is there sets up safety for that one person to speak their mind. But the other people might feel more like outsiders. Micro actions, like regularly meeting one-on-one, makes sure everyone feels like they’re on equal terms to share their thoughts.

“Looking for new talent that is a culture-add rather than a culture-fit is ultimately more valuable.”—Shane Snow

What are some examples of a healthy culture versus an unhealthy culture?

There’s healthy culture and cult-like culture. Both involve having a shared devotion to a person, a purpose, or an idea.

In a cult-like culture, members have to behave and think a certain way to belong. If they don’t, they get kicked out, ostracized, or punished. Often, in this type of organization, the goal of keeping the ship together is paramount to making breakthroughs. Members might even be happier in a cult-like culture because everyone behaves the same way and has similar beliefs, but there’s no conflict or room to bring things up that are outside of the current paradigm. Rather than innovating, this type of team can at most coast along happily.

In a healthy culture, team members can be who they are. They are free to think and express themselves however they’d like as long as they share a devotion to the team mission. Team members still can be kind, happy, like each other, and have each other’s backs in a healthy, innovative culture. But they also debate and express themselves even when their ideas aren’t popular. Game-changing growth happens in companies when there are disruptive elements and varying perspectives, but tempered by empathy when viewpoints differ.

What’s your take on the culture-fit concept?

Culture-fit implies someone already fits in. But if used incorrectly, it can make people feel excluded. People can feel like they won’t ever fit in even if they’re the most qualified candidate for the role.

If a company uses the culture-fit concept to align candidates with values like inclusivity and authenticity, that works. But if they use it to shut down ideas that are different to make the hiring process easier, that doesn’t work.

Looking for new talent that is a culture-add rather than a culture-fit is ultimately more valuable. Culture-add generates more diversity of thought on a team. In interviews, rather than looking for a checklist of right answers, look for people’s stories. A person who’s had a journey that’s different than anyone else’s shows they have the potential to bring something that the team doesn’t already have.

Any closing thoughts?

A group of people who think similarly can only be as smart as the smartest person in the group. Differing opinions lead groups to come up with better answers. Because when there are conflicting views, people think through things harder to become more sure of their answers.

It’s important to include people with differing experiences and invite the challenge and pain that comes with that. When everyone on the team knows each member is bringing something unique to the table, that ultimately creates more problem solving and individual autonomy.

When combining different ideas, there will be conflict between ideas. That cognitive friction builds a fire that helps the team, not a fire that burns them down.

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