Teamwork, According to The Wire

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You build a great team by finding and hiring the best, smartest, and hardest-working individuals and putting them in the right place within your organization…right?


If only it were that easy.


While I find Jim Collins’s “get the right people in the right seats of the bus” metaphor logical, I also find it an over-simplification of how great teams are actually formed and developed in the real world. A better metaphor would probably be, “you’ve crashed your airplane in the desert, and now you’ll have to find a way to get the survivors to work together to get home.” Most of the time, leaders find that they must work with the team they have, not the “ideal” team that they can imagine. This is because in the real world we operate within constraints. There are limited budgets, disappointingly small pools of candidates, an abundance of average employees, and more than a few long-timers who, for various reasons, are more risky to try to let go than to keep around.


The bus metaphor also misses the truth that qualifications and credentials are only half the story when it comes to building a team. Real teams are made up of individuals with different values, quirks, and preferences, who interact continually with other individuals who have their own different values, quirks, and preferences. This plurality and diversity of personalities is a double-edged sword that both makes organizations strong and dynamic, while at the same time being a potential source of conflict and division. The effectiveness of a team is not only improved by optimizing the configuration and tweaking the employee roster, but by improving the emotional intelligence of the whole group. People who understand themselves and others are more likely to proactively solve their own conflicts and be aware of who they need to work with to mitigate their own weaknesses. The next step is to create an environment where a true team mentality can be forged.


If you want to see how a real team is built and developed, I would recommend watching the HBO television series The Wire. When The Wire was aired in 2002 it was lauded by critics and viewers alike as a phenomenal work of popular culture. Its portrayal of Baltimore revealed the complex web of drugs, crime, police, bureaucrats, and politicians that have caused the city to be mired in poverty and violence.


Much less talked about, but equally intriguing to me is how The Wire illustrates leadership and teamwork. The series begins with the formation of a special police unit that is tasked with taking down the Barksdale Crew – a powerful and growing criminal organization in West Baltimore. It soon becomes clear to Cedric Daniels, the narcotics lieutenant in charge of the special unit, that the police chief doesn’t really want them to be successful; he just needs to appear to be taking action to appease those in even higher authority. For this reason and because the department is nearly broke, the special unit is comprised of mostly subpar police officers and is forced to literally operate out of a dingy basement.


Lieutenant Daniels is up against a sophisticated enemy, is being hamstrung by his own boss, and his team is comprised primarily of alcoholics, guys two years from getting their pensions, and other people that various departments have been trying to get rid of for years. Over the course of the first season, the team is transformed from a clunky and dysfunctional group of misfits to a highly effective crime fighting team that begins to bring down criminal bosses and crooked politicians alike. This transformation does not happen by blind luck or magic, but by a conscious effort of Cedric Daniels and the more senior members of the team.


As The Wire suggests, true teamwork only appears and grows when the right conditions are present; it is not simply just a matter of who is on the team.


The recipe for creating those conditions is not overly complex, but it’s no simple task either. You’ll need to shift the people you have into roles where they can do their best work and break up cliques that are comfortable with each other but not productive. Find out who is operating far beneath their potential and what gaps they can fill. Communicate a clear vision of where you want to take the organization and make it compelling enough so that people want to go there too. Those who are not interested must part ways sooner rather than later.


Tasks and objectives must be structured in such a way that team work is actually possible, and you’ll need to provide the trust and freedom necessary for people to naturally gravitate towards each other and solve problems as they see fit. Get the compensation structure right, so that people are incentivized to think and work as a team, and provide them with the resources necessary to do the job right. Step in when necessary to resolve a conflict but not before the team has had an opportunity to resolve the issue themselves.


Do these things and you’ll find that building and growing an effective team is not dependent on recruiting exclusively from Ivy League schools or spending tens of thousands of dollars on corporate team building activities.



Image credit
“TheWire32”. Via Wikipedia –

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