Just How Much DOES the Composition of a Professional Learning Team Matter?

Ross Smith—the director of Window’s Core Security at Microsoft spotlighted in The Innovator’s DNA (2011)—knows a thing or two about structuring collaborative groups.

Responsible for managing almost 70 teams focused on Window’s security issues, Smith noticed that one group—the Defect Prevention team—had been the most innovative for five straight years.

Specifically, this six-person team had developed a series of productivity games designed entertain users while simultaneously gathering feedback on the functionality of Windows products.

As Smith explains, this novel approach to gathering feedback from end users was incredibly successful:

“We saved millions of dollars and improved quality to a level that we’ve never seen before”

(Ross Smith as cited in Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen, 2011, p. 181).

What WAS it that made the Defect Prevention team uniquely innovative in an organization known for innovation?



First, its members possessed the kinds of discovery driven skills that define innovators: associating, questioning, observing, idea networking and experimenting (Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen, 2011).

These skills enabled the team to think creatively about the challenge of getting users to provide feedback on Microsoft products. They were willing to challenge the status quo and find connections between seemingly dissimilar ideas: gaming and gathering feedback.

They were also able to draw on their own networks—of ideas and individuals—to polish their thinking and they were willing to tinker with their ideas over time.

Equally important, however, each member of the team was particularly gifted in a different discovery skill. While some were expert networkers, others made associations or asked questions with ease.

This diversity, notes Innovator’s DNA authors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen, defines the most successful collaborative teams:

When complimentary discovery skills exist, the rich skill diversity increases the team’s overall ability to innovate.

Thus, the team’s capacity to generate new ideas consistently outstrips the ability of either any individual team member or another team when team members excel at the same discovery skill (e.g., networking is the primary source of new ideas for all team members).

Moreover, when different team members shine at different discovery skills, they can learn more from each other, creating further innovation synergies.

(Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen, 2011, p. 182).

But discovery driven skills aren’t the only skills necessary for driving innovation on collaborative teams.

Delivery skills—analyzing, planning, detail-oriented implementing, self-discipline—are equally important (Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen, 2011).

As Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen explain:

Successful innovation as a team requires the ability to generate novel ideas and the ability to execute those ideas on the team.

Both skills sets are necessary.

Smart leaders know this and consciously think about team composition, making sure the team is balanced enough in terms of discovery and delivery skills.”

(p. 184).

Pierre Omidyar—eBay’s discovery-minded founder—recognized the essential role that delivery skills play in successful innovation and intentionally added Jeff Skoll—a detail-oriented Stanford MBA—to to his leadership team (Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen, 2011).

Omidyar explains his relationship with Skoll like this:

“I’d say I did more of the creative work developing the product and solving problems around the product, while Jeff was involved in the more analytical and practical side of things.

He was the one who would listen to an idea of mine and then say, ‘OK, let’s figure out how to get this done.”

(Omidyar as cited in Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen, 2011, p. 183)

And Omidyar’s not alone. The most successful period of professional growth at Dell Computers came when Michael Dell—the creative founder of Dell—worked closely with delivery-oriented president Kevin Rollins.

As Rollins explains:

“Michael simply owns more of the entrepreneurial juice stuff. He has an idea a day, an hour.

In big companies, you can’t do an idea a day. I’m the governor of the innovation engine.”

(Rollins as cited in Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen, 2011, p. 183)

So what lessons can the principals of PLCs learn from the successful collaborative teams at Microsoft, eBay and Dell Computers?

Here’s two:

If you care about instructional innovation, team composition is an essential ingredient to consider.

I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with the content-first-and-nothing-else-matters approach to creating collaborative teams that has become so common in many professional learning communities.

The fact of the matter is that just because teachers share a content area and/or grade level doesn’t mean that they’re automatically going to be a successful collaborative group.

Think about Microsoft’s Defect Prevention team: They weren’t successful simply because they were all Defect Prevention specialists.

They were successful because they were Defect Prevention specialists who brought a broad range of complementary discovery and delivery skills to their team.

The lesson is a simple one: To be successful, a team has to have the right mix of discovery and delivery oriented members.

Sharing a specialty alone just isn’t enough to hold a group committed to innovation together.

 

Delivery skills are as important to successful teams as discovery skills.

Think about the teachers in your building who regularly wow you. They’re discovery-oriented, aren’t they?

Constantly dreaming about new ways to transform learning environments for today’s students, their practices seem revolutionary.

Sustainable change in organizations, however, isn’t about revolution—it’s about evolution.

The best ideas aren’t the ones that are the most radical; the best ideas are the ones that can actually be implemented systematically across a schoolhouse.

Like Michael Dell, every learning team needs a “governor of the innovation engine,” and those governors are often the delivery-oriented people in your buildings.

While delivery skills aren’t sexy, they make the difference between a dream and a tangible change in a learning team’s practices.

Sure, a learning team needs dreamers. Schools have earned a well-deserved reputation for being resistant to new ideas, y’all.

But school leaders must recognize that a group of teachers with great imaginations but no follow through is just as weak as a nose-to-the-grindstone group who never dreams.

 

Long story short, team assignments in a professional learning community require a level of nuance that often seems to be missing from our current practices.

If we want to give every team a chance to succeed at the kinds of innovative behaviors that define the most accomplished collaborative groups in the private sector, we need to think carefully about more than just the content and grade level that teachers are working in.

Instead, we need to think about the kinds of discovery and delivery skills that teachers bring to the professional table as well.

Sure, this kind of nuanced decision-making isn’t going to be easy.

It requires a willingness to screen the skills and abilities of applicants and in-house faculty members. It requires a willingness to tinker with team assignments, looking for the perfect blend of natural dispositions. It requires a willingness to question the current structure of the learning teams in our buildings.

All of this takes a heck of a lot more time than just finding people with the same certifications and then assigning them to collaborative groups based on the content area and grade level that they teach.

But the return on your investment of time is well worth it. As Dan Bean—a core member of Microsoft’s successful Defective Product team—explains:

“All I know is that the discussions we have in this team are the most creative and stimulating I have run into at Microsoft.

And that makes it really fun to work in the team.”

(Bean as cited in Dyer, Gregersen & Christensen, 2011, p. 182)

Aren’t those the kinds of comments that you want the teachers of YOUR professional learning teams to make about their collaborative work with one another other?

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Related Radical Reads:

What CAN the Principals of PLCs Learn from Love Labs?

Evolutionary Lessons for PLC Principals

Sustainable Change in Schools

What Can PLC Principals Learn from Hand-washing?

5 comments

  1. Essays

    Hello there, I just wanted to say thanks for this informative post, can you please allow me to post it on my blog, I am waiting for your response?Thank you.

  2. John

    Bill… Great post. I’d like to offer some companion thoughts. I think the partnership between Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs fits nicely into your group of people with different skill sets that led to tremendous success.
    I also think though, that identifying these different skills is much more difficult. It’s great to be able to describe these traits but they’re mostly described in the past tense. It will surely test the patience of anyone to assemble a team and expect it to operate successfully out of the box. I would think that administrators would be ready to toss out the baby with the bath water if they had to live with these standards. I think they need significant training with followup assessment over a sufficient amount of time to demonstrate proficiency and I’m not sure their assessors have that much patience.
    I would propose that in order to have an above average chance at spawning multiple successful teams in a building that teams be formed and instructed to use the book “Building a PLC at work;the first year” and use all the PD time for that year to hone the process.
    peace….

  3. Chris Lindholm

    I particularly like – “It requires a willingness to screen the skills and abilities of applicants and in-house faculty members. It requires a willingness to tinker with team assignments, looking for the perfect blend of natural dispositions. It requires a willingness to question the current structure of the learning teams in our buildings.”
    True to PLC language, doing real collaboration and finding the right team mix is an ongoing process of inquiry, data collection, and actions to get better results. Leaders who are truly focused on nailing the goals articulated in our improvement plans should constantly be reviewing the “line up” just like a coach might do with a soccer team. Sometimes the chemistry needs a change up – sometimes we actually get “into the zone.” If this kind of collaboration is important it must be measured.
    Qstn: How do others measure the chemistry of collaborative teams and how do you establish a tight connection to your improvement plans?

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks, Hatch—
    I’m just way into finding connections between the work done by collaborative teams outside of schools and collaborative teams inside of schools.
    I think there are real lessons to be learned about collaboration from businesses and real lessons to be learned about relationships from counselors.
    I think we only hurt ourselves when we don’t work to learn from those external sources—especially businesses–simply because we’re trying to prepare our kids for work in those external worlds.
    Any of this make sense?
    Bill

  5. Hatcherelli.wordpress.com

    Such a great piece, Bill. An awesome follow up to the “love labs” bit.
    You are right, team work is extremely important in our work as educators. I have seen so many teams of teachers that discover but don’t deliver.
    I have worked on teams that are fun to be part of because everyone understood their role and strengths.
    Thanks for an incredible well written and researched piece…your use of quotations from the text are inspiring!
    Derek