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How to Build a Dream Team with Shane Snow

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In this episode of our series, The World’s Most Interesting People, I sat down with Shane Snow to discuss how to build a dream team. 

Shane is an award-winner journalist, co-founder of Contently (one of’s fastest-growing companies), best-selling author of Smartcuts: The Breakthrough of Lateral Thinking and Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart.

His writing has appeared in Fast Company, Wired and The New Yorker and he’s a fellow of the Royal Academy of Arts and recipient of Columbia University’s Innovator Award.

Intellectual Friction

What is the biggest mistake non-dream teams make?

Shane tells us most teams have a natural desire to get along and to be unified. When teams have intellectual conflict or different ideas, sometimes the desire to play nice supersedes the necessity of working through challenges and bringing issues to light.

We think that having a peaceful, cohesive team is the important thing, when actually that is counter to having an innovative team.

Shane Snow

Intellectual friction is a natural part of doing business and Shane believes people shouldn’t shy away from it.

Walk us through how you define problems.

Shane recommends we think about building our teams like casting a play or movie. It’s more than the convenience of finding people we’ve worked with in the past or someone who’s readily available. Project-to-project, managers need to cast the best team member for the role.

It works like this: When a company is working through a problem that requires multiple people or an idea that requires input from multiple people, the first task is determining what kinds of people need to be included on the problem or idea.

Is this a new problem that requires breaking new ground or a routine problem in the business?

Routine problems and solutions typically operate like an assembly line. In these instances, who you cast doesn’t really matter. Diversity doesn’t really matter, because the cognitive load is light. For new problems, it’s essential the team that’s brought together is unique enough to bring multiple solutions and ideas to the table—to bring something you (as the entrepreneur or manager) couldn’t necessarily have thought of on your own.  

Shane tells us most businesses fail to take this step and default to “working with whoever.”

If you think about how past wars were fought, all the decisions were made by the general and all the soldiers lined up to march forward and fight. They did what they were told without much thought or motivation to make decisions on their own. Now, war is fought differently. Soldiers are collaborating with villages and communicating with locals, so they have to be equipped to make decisions on their own.

If you have rows and rows of the same people, they’re only going to solve problems in one way.

Shane Snow

As Shane puts it, our world and technology are changing so rapidly, we can’t afford to put out armies of clones in an assembly line to solve every problem.

Action Step: Define your problem first. Is it a novel or routine problem? What people do you need to recruit to solve it?

The Diversity Paradox

The part of your book on diversity training absolutely shocked me. Can you tell us more?

Shane reminds us that true diversity simply means a variety. It goes beyond diversity in race and gender alone. In Dream Teams, he shares research that shows the corporate boardrooms made up of both men and women (as opposed to men alone), make fewer bad decisions and run more successful companies overall. With that said, there’s other research that shows that companies who have high diversity in the ranks tend to have more problems, higher turnover and increased conflict.

According to Shane’s findings, most diversity training actually makes matters worse.

Why doesn’t this training work?

The research shows that individuals in the minority who go through this training don’t feel better. Instead, they often feel more marginalized than they did to begin with. If you’re in the majority, research shows this training may leave you feeling more nervous—that you will say or do the wrong thing.

At the boardroom level, this is a room full of idea-generators and decision-makers. Everyone in the room is speaking, so diversity is honored and respected. Within the ranks of a company, it’s more typical for some team members to hold back and diversity isn’t as celebrated or noticed. Shane says that in these cases, what’s left is a whole lot of fear.

Diversity is not the point. The combination of diversity is the point.

Shane Snow

Action Steps: Shane advises giving people the freedom to be who they want to be in exchange for the accountability of getting things done and getting results. This is how teams and companies get closer to having intellectual friction that is collaborative and diverse. As a manager, allow your team to express individual values and beliefs and anytime you find yourself saying your team “should think or feel a certain way,” pause for the opportunity for others to interject their own thoughts and feelings.

Productivity Conflict

Tell us about the murder mystery study you share in your book.

In a 2013 study, a group of professors gathered participants together and asked them to identify themselves as Democrat or Republican. They then gave the group homework—to read a murder mystery and to come back the next day prepared to debate what had happened. Half of them were told they would be debating someone from their own political party and the other half were told they would be debating someone of the opposing political party.

What happened? The group that was told they would be debating against someone of the opposing party prepared more and came in with more clever talking points than the people who were told they would be debating their own kind. This research shows that when we simply are put in a room with people who are cognitively different from us, it pushes us to think more critically and to work harder. Often times, ‘outsiders’ can kickstart our path to intellectual friction.

Action Steps: Getting along never should be the end-all be-all. Productive conflict often leads to increased problem solving. If you’re only seeking out people like you, you’re only going to become more like them (which isn’t a whole lot of change, since you’re already similar!). Invite people to the table who are different from you—who will push you to perceive ideas differently. The sweet spot are people who may not intellectually agree with you, but who personally support you.  

What’s the most interesting team you’ve ever come across?

Shane tells us one of his favorites is the first female detective in America, Kate Warne. In the 1800s, she demanded a job from a well-known male detective at the time, Allan Pinkerton. He told her he didn’t have any secretary positions open, and she told him that wasn’t the kind of job she was after. Allan agreed to offer her a spot as a detective. Kate brought a new perspective to the industry–she was able to connect with people differently and was known as a master of disguise. Allan encouraged her to build a bureau of female investigators who would be paired up with the male investigators to ensure that investigative perspective wasn’t lost on one gender.

This innovative and collaborative thinking is what Shane tells us we should strive for in our teams.

Follow along with Shane’s journey:

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