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Teams, Superchickens, and Saturday Night Live: Part 1

Posted in The Next Level: QuickTakes on LDM

Guest blogger: Stephen Roth is vice president & general counsel of Jewelry Television, a national jewelry retailer. The views in this post are his and do not reflect the views of the ACC or Jewelry Television. He is also vice-chair of the ACC Law Department Management Committee.

Welcome to the inaugural post of The Next Level: QuickTakes on LDM, a blog series by the ACC Law Department Management Committee. Every month, we’ll cover a timely topic about leading and running law departments.

We’re going to kick off by talking about team dynamics. Since businesses and legal departments increasingly get their day-to-day work done in teams, an understanding about how these groups function is a fundamental part of being effective.

To set the table, I want you to think about unusual combinations and consider that they can work in unexpected ways. Here’s an example. Recently, my wife and I had a movie night with our teenage daughter. Our feature film was Central Intelligence, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and comedian Kevin Hart.

These two are an improbable pair, to say the least. Johnson is 6’5” and built like Mount Rushmore. Hart is a full foot shorter. His smile is the biggest thing about him. Although the movie isn’t going to win any Academy Awards, it had some funny moments and the unlikely pairing worked.

This post (and next month’s post) will also focus on another unusual combination: superchickens and Saturday Night Live. Believe it or not, this unlikely pairing has something to teach us about team dynamics.

To connect these improbable dots, we’ll need to take a road trip. Our first stop will be in the heartland — two chicken coops in Indiana to be precise. Next, we’ll roll past the TED stage to the desk of an award-winning journalist. Finally, we’ll end up in the Big Apple with a group of pioneering comedians.

Stephen Roth VP & General Counsel Jewelry Television

Stephen Roth
VP & General Counsel
Jewelry Television

Our first stop is the lab of William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue. Muir created a simple and elegant experiment on productivity. The subjects? Chickens. Why chickens? Measuring their output was simple: Count the number of eggs they lay.

Muir created two groups. In the first were everyday hens. The second was more exclusive. It was reserved for the most prolific egg-layers. In the second group, Muir allowed only the very highest producers to breed. In the first, he let nature take its course. After six generations, he compared the productivity of the two flocks.

It’s time to place your bet on which group won. My guess is that you’ll put your money on the superflock. The more superchickens, the more eggs, right? It’s all too easy.

But that’s not how it turned out. At the end of the experiment, the average flock did well: Its members were healthy, and egg production had increased significantly. But in the other group, a major problem developed. All but three of them were dead: The survivors had pecked the others to death. The superstars ruled the roost by suppressing the rest.

In an insightful TED Talk, businesswoman and author Margaret Heffernan applies Muir’s research to building cohesive, productive companies. Her theory is that the superstar model is flawed and typically leads to dysfunction. Since companies work primarily in teams, the workplace has become more social, and interactions are key. Brilliant lone rangers impede, not inspire, the progress of the group.

Though, it doesn’t have to be this way. Heffernan cites the example of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where the focus isn’t on finding star performers; but on what happens when the students interact. She also discusses the music industry, where superstars are few and the long-term players are usually the best collaborators.

According to Heffernan, the essential ingredient is social capital, which she defines as a sense of connectedness to the other team members, created by loyalty and trust, along with an attitude of helpfulness. Social capital grows in part from people spending time together, and the focus doesn’t have to be work-related. Many companies now create opportunities for employees to hang out. Some have coordinated coffee breaks. Others have sponsored vegetable gardens. Time is shared. The team becomes connected. Social capital takes root, and the company is both more productive and more resilient.

Take a listen to Margaret’s TED Talk and hear it in her words.

Margaret HeffernanDoes Heffernan’s view mean that we should never fill our legal teams with superstars? Not in my mind. Given the right environment, teams of stars can thrive. That’s what we’ll explore in my next post, when we’ll turn to those famous experts on team dynamics, the Blues Brothers, and the Coneheads.