Competition and Collaboration Creates High Performing Teams

Many of us have heard the story about the classical race between the tortoise and hare but did you know that there is a version 2.0 of that metaphor? In essence, there was a re-match as the rabbit wanted to prove that being the fastest and ergonomically conducive animal, it would win the second race. Here, the tortoise was obviously left behind but the hare came to a major roadblock in their race track i.e. the bank of a river. How could it possibly transcend this obstacle when it has no mechanics to swim and isn’t designed by Nature to even glide over water? The tortoise eventually caught up and in seeing the hare; offered to carry the hare on its back so that they could both cross the river bank and reach the finish line together!

This encapsulates an inherent and powerful notion of teamwork where collaborative efforts and using complementary capabilities lead to progress and accomplishment of goals. In the enterprise contexts its natural to have large project teams comprising of diverse cultural, academic, racial and skillset backgrounds. A Harvard Business Review article entitled “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams (November 2007: Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson) focuses on a study done to identify traits on how the largest and most complex teams can work together effectively and in the right conditions. The nexus of the article revolves around practical research across many large scale organisations that employ virtual and physical teams of all sizes (often 100 plus members) to take on projects across change management, technology integration, market development and/or business process optimisation. One would think that given such variety of backgrounds, skill-sets and functional expertise – the project team would prosper and rapidly achieve project milestones given.
However, the study outlines an inherent paradox in that “qualities that are required for success are the same qualities that undermine success” as it was discovered that the greater the diversity and variety of team members, the “more likely it was to disintegrate into non-productive conflict or stalemate”. This can seem counter-intuitive at first as you wouldn’t think that having the right set of skill-sets could derail the collaborative “modus operandi” of the team and would think that everyone’s will to co-operate would automatically result in knowing how to work together very well in a team context. The study found that size, distance, communication diversity, virtual participation, educational level of team mates and backgrounds – whilst being crucial to teams – also undermined their performance.
So how do we engage these team contexts and structures which are going to always prevail and in-fact become more omnipresent in the digital and networked age? Think back to the design of the hare against the tortoise. Both could be seen as project managers with competing resource budgets and with an equal appetite to achieve their project milestones first or before the other. However, the hare whom is ergonomically equipped with agile paws and much lighter (giving it the advantage of speed) than the tortoise clearly came across an obstacle that required it to embrace not only cooperation but reciprocity. Here, a collaborative behavior was demonstrated by the tortoise by offering to carry the hare on its back to both reach the finish line.
This principal exhibited by the tortoise resonates with the HBR article in question wherein the authors deduce 8 factors that lead to success of large teams. These are collectively defined as:

  • Investing in signature relationship practices
  • Modelling collaborative behavior
  • Creating a ‘gift’ culture
  • Ensuring the requisite skills
  • Supporting a strong sense of community
  • Assigning team leaders that are both task-and relationship oriented
  • Building on heritage relationships
  • Understanding role clarity and task ambiguity

Under collaborative conditions; teams can scale rapidly. It gives rise to the notion of distributed leadership (as evidenced by the hare and tortoise). Collaborative culture is one thing but being skilled in the practice of collaboration itself is core to fostering teamwork. Teams in the current day and age need to be supported through notions of distributed leadership (visualise a soccer team – anyone can score the goal) and effectively function as ‘porous membranes’ which means allowing in energy (finding balance between both task and relationship oriented tasks) and getting rid of waste (breaking the nexus of background diversity that is inhibiting sharing of knowledge).

Supported by virtual technologies and a simple framework for communications, teams 2.0 would take on more biological forms and processes and ultimately scale rapidly through a set of strong and weak ties. These behaviors and functions will collectively ebb, flow and ensconce itself as the tempo of the team that will not only enable collective intelligence but leads to the creation of simple rules that govern self-organising behaviours. Therefore, ultimately, a core teaching from the study into creating collaborative teams was how to support and enhance their capabilities to deliver in a virtual setting – where project members are geographically distributed and embody degrees of cultural variance. A relevant framework in this operating context revolves around the simple rules and four different zones across leadership, connectivity, execution and organisation. These are well presented in another article entitled “The Secret DNA Of High Performing Virtual Teams”. By operating with these tenets of self-organisation and embedding some simple rules and frameworks for collaboration, high performing teams can not only be nurtured but evolved into collaborating dynamically within and across enterprises.


  • Gratton, L. and Erickson, T. (2007). Ways To Build Collaborative Teams.┬áHarvard Business Review, (November 2007).