Build your team like Broadway

This blog was originally published by the Collective Impact Forum.

Building a steering committee or leadership team for a collective impact initiative can feel high stakes. When done well, it opens the door to innovation and impact; when done poorly it can dissipate precious time, commitment and enthusiasm for the endeavor.

Whenever I build a leadership team, I like to think about Broadway. Not because we all need a little razzle-dazzle once in a while, but because recent research on teams, networks, collaboration and creativity has learned a lot from show biz.

A few years ago, social scientist Brian Uzzi made headlines in the business and cultural blogosphere for research he did on what makes a Broadway show a hit. After studying 474 Broadway musicals released between 1945 and 1989, Uzzi found that the make-up of the team behind the production is a reliable indicator of success or failure.

Specifically, Uzzi found that Broadway flops were often the work of two kinds of teams: those that had worked together too often, and those that had worked together too little. Teams that work together too frequently can fall victim to “group think,” while teams that lack familiarity don’t have enough chemistry to safely challenge one another.

The big hits, on the other hand, are often the work of teams that have a little bit of both. They have some members who know and trust one another, which provides familiarity and stability, and some members new to the team – who can challenge assumptions by bringing a different set of experiences and perspectives to the work.

I found myself thinking about this combination of stability and perspective recently when I began recruiting a steering committee for a local collective impact initiative here in Montana. Along with questions like, Who has influence over the policies, practices and people of an organization or system? Who brings credibility to our efforts? and Whose perspective needs to be in the room?, I thought about the team, as a whole: Who knows whom? Who would benefit from knowing whom, if they don’t already? What combination of people would yield a synergistic, inquisitive, demanding and commanding team?

Uzzi’s research yielded insights into team make-up, and as importantly, insights into the networks that form the fabric of relationships and interconnectivity within a community.  There are tightly connected “nodes” within a community – cliques, if you will – of people who work together regularly. And then there are the connections between nodes – the chain of relationships that connect one node to another.

As I build steering committees for collective impact initiatives, I challenge myself to view the community as an ecosystem of relationships, and then recruit leadership to best leverage these nodes and connections. For instance, in a team of ten leaders, I strive to have no more than two sets of three or four people who know one another well, and work to recruit a few folks I hope will challenge set assumptions, based on their experiences in the community.  I find this combination provides some stability, as well as innovation, as people gain new insights into the work.

When launching a collective impact initiative, we are working within an existing landscape of people, organizations, initiatives and efforts. The more keenly we can perceive this ecosystem of networks, the more ably we can navigate it. This is critical to our ability to build and support strong collective impact initiatives, and – as importantly – it reminds us that our work is in service to the long-term interests of a community. In our work, we strive to strengthen the local ecosystem, helping to foster success in present and future endeavors the community chooses to pursue.



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