The Danger of Being the Brightest Person in the Room

Recently I recalled a consulting job several years ago where I was speaking to a church about the formation of a team to work on the planning for a new building. During one of the sessions I was speaking on the importance of including the facility manager on the building team in a church project, and I tossed out the following statement: The person who sweeps the floor should choose the broom.

That brought out a lot of chuckles from the attendees, but the point hit home: Operational staff members almost never get the chance for input into the decision-making process, yet they are held responsible for the ongoing outcomes of the decisions. That statement and the following story came to mind recently while working on a teamwork project for a future presentation.

James Watson and Francis Crick can arguably say they answered the question, “What is the secret of life”? The pair discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, the biological material that carries life’s genetic information. During an interview on the 50th anniversary of their discovery, Watson was asked how he and Crick had solved the problem ahead of many other highly accomplished, recognized scientists. Watson’s answer included identifying the problem first, being passionate and single-minded about their work, and their willingness to attempt approaches outside their area of familiarity. Then he added something that was astounding: they had cracked the DNA code primarily because they were not the most intelligent scientists pursuing the answer.

Watson went on to say that the most intelligent person working on the project was Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant British scientist who worked alone. “Rosalind was so intelligent that she rarely sought advice. And if you’re the brightest person in the room, then you’re in trouble.”

That comment highlights a common occurrence in church leadership: When dealing with a specific problem or issue, leaders should ensure that they collaborate with team members toward its resolution, even if they are the best-informed, most-experienced, or most skilled person in the group. Far too often, leaders – who, by virtue of greater experience, skill, and wisdom, deem themselves the ablest problem solver in the group – fail to ask for input from team members.

Scientific studies have shown that groups who cooperate in seeking a solution are not just better than the average member working alone, but are even better than the group’s best problem-solver working alone. Lone decision-makers can’t match the diversity of knowledge and perspectives of a multi-person unit that includes them. The ability to distribute many subtasks of a problem to its members – parallel processing – enables the group to outperform the individual who must address them sequentially.

Are you a church leader working in a group? Don’t relinquish your leadership role, but make sure your process allows group members to offer insights, cooperate, and collaborate with each other. The Bible has a lot to say about that, but that’s for another time!

How Do Great Leaders Keep Their Team Focused and Execute Decisions Well?

What’s at stake if teams don’t make better team decisions? From a long list of potential answers, four stand out:

  • Lost time: Poor team decision-making simply burns more time. It may be more time in the meeting itself, because there were no collaboration guidelines. Perhaps it’s lost time outside of the meeting in hallway conversations, because ideas weren’t fully explored or vetted.
  • Dissipated energy: Poor team decision-making leaves questions unanswered and half-baked solutions in the atmosphere. We don’t know exactly where we stand or what we’ve decided. The thought of revisiting an unfinished conversation itself is an unwelcome burden.
  • Mediocre ideas: Poor team decision-making fortifies our weakest thinking. Innovation is something we read about but never experience. We cut-n-past the ideas of others, because we don’t know how to generate our own. We traffic in good ideas and miss great ones.
  • Competing visions: Poor team decision-making invites an unhealthy drift toward independence. No one has the conscious thought that they have a competing vision. But in reality, there are differences to each person’s picture of their future. It’s impossible for this divergence not to happen if there is no dialogue.

So, how do you start to create a dynamic of collaborative decision-making?

Utilizing cognitive diversity.

A groundbreaking book that sheds new light on the vital importance of teams as the fundamental unit of organization and competition in the global economy.

Offering vivid reports of the latest scientific research, compelling case studies, and great storytelling, Team Genius shows managers and executives that the planning, design, and management of great teams no longer have to be a black art. It explores solutions to essential questions that could spell the difference between success and obsolescence.

Throughout, Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone share insights and real-life examples gleaned from their careers as journalists, analysts, investors, and globetrotting entrepreneurs, meeting successful teams and team leaders to reveal some “new truths”:

  • The right team size is usually one fewer person than what managers think they need.
  • The greatest question facing good teams is not how to succeed, but how to die.
  • Good “chemistry” often makes for the least effective teams.
  • Cognitive diversity yields the highest performance gains—but only if you understand what it is.
  • How to find the “bliss point” in team intimacy—and become three times more productive.
  • How to identify destructive team members before they do harm.
  • Why small teams are 40 percent more likely to create a successful breakthrough than a solo genius is.
  • Why groups of 7 (± 2), 150, and 1,500 are magic sizes for teams.


Teams—we depend on them for both our professional success and our personal happiness. But isn’t it odd how little scrutiny we give them? The teams that make up our lives are created mostly by luck, happenstance, or circumstance—but rarely by design. In trivial matters—say, a bowling team, the leadership of a neighborhood group, or a holiday party committee—success by serendipity is already risky enough. But when it comes to actions by fast-moving start-ups, major corporations, nonprofit institutions, and governments, leaving things to chance can be downright dangerous.

Research has concluded that people think differently from one another. But even when we accept that fact, few leaders give it much consideration when teams are formed. As a result, everything looks good on paper, the team members’ talents dovetail neatly, everyone gets along well and yet in action, the team just doesn’t work.

When it comes to teams, traditional definitions of “diversity” are meaningless. Cognitive diversity – how people think – is all that matters.

“Dream teams” don’t always perform as well as teams composed of lesser players who exhibit great chemistry do. All effective teams include individuals who can function together as the “brain systems” required to achieve the group’s task.

It’s not enough for resumes and personalities to match. In fact, doing so may be the worst thing you can do. Given the choice of a team that is a rainbow of races and cultures but whose members all went to the same or similar universities, and a team entirely composed of African American women (or Asian men) of different ages, classes, educations, and personality types, you are far more likely to have success with the latter.

To help foster this concept, leaders need to:

  • Know their own preferences, weaknesses, strengths, and understand how their own style can stifle creativity.

  • Help team members learn and acknowledge their intellectual preferences and differences.

  • Keep project goals front and center, and schedule time for divergent thinking (generating multiple options) and convergent thinking (focusing on a single option and its implementation).

  • Devise guidelines in advance for working together. For example, establish a rule (and get team members’ agreement) up front that any conflicts will not get personal and that any reasons for disagreements will always be stated.

Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone, Team Genius


When your team is stuck and can’t decide on moving forward, try the following exercise to evaluate ideas according to their level of innovation, their desirability, and feasibility.

  1. Write the idea or decision to be made on a chart tablet, and divide your team into three groups. Here’s the kicker: As leader of the team, try your best to place members of your team into groups that would not be their first choice. Give them 30 minutes to do their group work.
  2. The first group evaluates innovation – is the idea new? The group should evaluate the idea as:
    1. Disruptively new (might cause major consequences)
    2. Totally new (people might become familiar without major consequences)
    3. Improvement (improves something in a way people haven’t noticed before)
  3. The second group evaluates the desirability. Do people want this idea? What kind of needs are fulfilled? Evaluate the ideas as:
    1. Proof of need and desire – there is evidence of need and desire
    2. Assumed need and desire – there are high chances of need and desire
    3. Unknown need and desire.
  4. The third group will evaluate the feasibility. How will the idea be developed? Evaluate the idea as:
    1. Highly feasible
    2. Moderately feasible
    3. Not feasible
  5. At the conclusion of the group discussion period, bring everyone together and have each group report the highlights of their discussion, listing them on the chart tablet in the three areas of innovation, desirability, and feasibility.
  6. Utilize the newly discovered information to move forward with your idea or action.

The above exercise was adapted from 75 Tools for Creative Thinking, Booreiland

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 49-3, published September 2016.

Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “summary” for church leaders. Each Wednesday I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt here.

Photo by Climate KIC on Unsplash

Will You Just Answer the Question Already?

The same question, coming from 3 different conversations with 3 different pastors over the course of 3 different days prompted this series of posts.

Q: How do you put together a team of leaders to guide a church through a new ministry initiative or project?

My reply is that you don’t just want a team, you need a high-performing team. The foundational work that I have used for several years is based on what Pat MacMillan, author of The Performance Factor, has described as the six characteristics of a high-performing team. 

The first characteristic was a common purpose. The second was crystal clear roles.

Here are the remaining four characteristics:

  • High performance teams need – no, demand – accepted leadership capable of calling out the levels of initiative and creativity that motivate exceptional levels of both individual and collective performance.
  •  High performance teams have effective processes. They identify, map, and then master their key team processes. They constantly evaluate the effectiveness of key processes, asking: How are we doing? What are we learning? How can we do it better?
  • High performance teams must work out of a foundation of solid relationships. The relational qualities of trust, acceptance, respect, courtesy, and a liberal dose of understanding are needed for high levels of team effectiveness.
  • High performance teams have excellent communication. No team can move faster than it communicates; fast, clear, and accurate communication is the key to thinking and acting collectively.


It’s a short list – only six characteristics. But each characteristic plays a specific and vital role in making the team effective. Notice the arrangement of the characteristics – a wheel shape. In a sense, each one is equal and necessary. If one of these six characteristics is missing or inadequate, the team is limping at best. Think of the wheel on your car: if it is out of balance or alignment, the performance is affected. What starts out as a distraction can turn into a disaster.

By the way, if you click on the image above, the link will take you to the website of author Pat MacMillan’s company for detailed explanations of each of the 6 characteristics, along with a wealth of other resources.

Back to your car’s alignment – the same is true for your team: if two or three of these characteristics are missing, your group is probably not a team at all.

Here’s my quick answer for the question above.

A: You start by bringing together a group of people who effectively demonstrate the six characteristics of a high-performing team. Once the team is together, the work begins.


Now the fun begins…

inspired by and adapted from The Performance Factor by Pat MacMillan

The Performance Factor 

The Question of the Week is…

How do you put together a team of leaders to guide a church through a new ministry initiative or project?

3 different conversations with 3 different pastors over the course of 3 different days, but all having the same question!

As with all great questions, the answer begins with another question. One of the first I would ask is Why does this group exist? How that question is answered will determine, to a great measure, the success of the team. Pat MacMillan, author of The Performance Factor, and Seth Godin, author of Tribes, have been a great resource for me in working with church leadership teams.

The single most important ingredient in a team’s success is a clear, common, compelling task.

The power of a team flows out of each team member’s alignment to its purpose. The task of any team is to accomplish an objective and to do so at exceptional levels of performance. Teams are not ends in themselves, but rather a means to an end.

The power of teamwork flows out of alignment between the interests of individual team members and the mission of the team. MacMillan found that to achieve such alignment, team members must see the task as:

  • Clear – I see it.
  • Relevant – I want it.
  • Significant – It’s worth it.
  • Urgent – I want it…now!
  • Achievable – I believe it.

So you want to put together a leadership team for a specific project?

NEWS FLASH: There really is an “I” in team – if the individual members aren’t committed to a clear, common, and compelling task as individuals first, then you really won’t have much of a team.

So, the first answer to the question above?

A: First, the church needs to have a clear understanding of what the team is expected to accomplish. That clear purpose will serve as a guide to seeking individuals who will bring their collective wisdom together to form, over time, a team to accomplish the task.

inspired by and adapted from The Performance Factor by Pat MacMillan and Tribes by Seth Godin

The Performance FactorTribes

Thomas Edison Didn’t Invent the Light Bulb

If you asked who invented incandescent electric light, and you answered Thomas Edison, you’d be right – and you’d be wrong.

The revolution that Edison wrought was the product of a team.

When we call Thomas Edison to mind, our first thought is of a brilliant inventor and innovator whose creations transformed modern life. We often think of him toiling away in a laboratory all by himself, long into the wee hours of the morning.

Tempting as it is to sustain this image of Edison, it is inaccurate.

We love the idea of a lone genius, the mastermind, the hero. From an early age, we’re indoctrinated with the single-achiever idea in school. Our textbooks boil things down to their simplest form, and for a fifth-grader, it’s easy to say that Edison created the light bulb.

The reality is very different. Here’s what geniuses do:

They build great teams.

Thomas Edison, one of the most brilliant minds in the world, accepted that he alone did not possess all the answers, but together, his team usually did.

Never intimidated by other great minds, Edison actively sought out men with a broad base of knowledge, a passion for learning, impeccable character, and a commitment to excellence.

Thomas Edison viewed collaboration as the beating heart of his laboratories, a sustaining resource that fueled the knowledge assets of his sprawling innovation empire.

Maybe it’s time our organizations rediscovered the truths of teamwork and collaboration that Edison used so powerfully.

An ongoing series exploring the power of teamwork

Inspired by:

Midnight Lunch, written by Sarah Miller Caldicott

The Orange Revolution, written by Adrian Gostick & Chester Elton

Creating We, written by Judith Glaser

Lessons in Teamwork

…courtesy of the Miami Heat

Here’s a repost from last year I thought was appropriate since the Miami Heat won the NBA Championship last night.

I’m not really a fan of pro basketball, but I must say that the free-agent talent raid pulled off by the Miami Heat has made for interesting conversations since last summer. From marketing hype at it’s most annoying (LeBron James’ announcement –“The Decision” – that he was going to the Heat) to instant pundits proclaiming them the next dynasty to a chorus of “I told you so”, it’s been more like a three-ring circus than a basketball team.

But leave it to Fast Company magazine’s Chuck Salter to find some great lessons in teambuilding from, well building a team. You need to read the whole story here, but for a quick taste read the following:

6 Steps Required to Create a Dream Team (in any setting)

  1. The Ego Equation: start with sacrifice. High-priced talent doesn’t ensure success. Think New  York Yankees – or the Knicks. Sports not your thing? Remember when Steven  Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen looked like a can’t-miss  team at DreamWorks? Turns out, no one bothered to account for the polarity  of their personalities. Teaming up has its trade-offs. Where once Wade had the spotlight, now he has to share it. No more entourage traveling with James. All three have seen less of the basketball. In other words, the team’s leaders have done what stars need to do when they merge: show a  willingness to sacrifice. It’s a necessary start.
  2. The Rule of Many: stars  can’t go it alone. New hires perform better when they bring a former colleague with them. Miami brought over a player who had been with James for seven seasons. The team also kept a longtime buddy of Wades who had been on the team eight years. All told, Miami added six new players in a span of 21 days: three-point specialists, guys to do the grunt work of rebounding, setting picks, and feeding the ball to the “Big 3.”
  3. The Platoon Principle: adversity is an asset. Nothing brings a team together like a common enemy. Google needs Facebook. Under Armour  needs Nike. The Heat need everybody who’s not the Heat. Coach Erik Spoelstra hoped to turn the vitriol to his advantage. The real bonding didn’t occur until the team began to lose – and badly. Said Spoelstra: “When it’s raw, when you don’t get along, that’s when there’s the most opportunity for growth.” Under duress, Miami found its identity.
  4. The Trust Theorem: when  the going gets tough, turn to one another. Watching the three  superstars at practice, it’s obvious these guys get along. But camaraderie  doesn’t necessarily translate into collaboration. When you assemble a team of experts, it’s better to have complementary, not competing, specialties.
  5. The Credibility Conundrum: manage from the inside out. Coach  Spoelstra’s position is like any manager operating between the CEO and the  in-the-trenches talent. Spoelstra needs to tread carefully, balancing his obligations to his boss and his commitments to his players, all in his  quest to build his own credibility for leadership. The coach must wrestle when to coddle and when to push, trying to master the sleight of hand that allows the young millionaires to feel they have ownership of the team even as he calls the shots.
  6. The Law of Patience: beware the blame game. Everyone remembers the six NBA titles the Chicago Bulls won with Jordan, Pippen, and a cast of specialists to support them. What we tend to forget is how long it took the Bulls to put all those pieces together. They didn’t win the first year. Or the second. Or even  the third. It took the team four years. Chemistry takes time. The playersrespect one another’s individual skills and even learn from one another. But those patterns don’t emerge right away. Chemistry isn’t something you create and then ignore. It’s a reflection of the bonds between members, and those bonds are fragile and needy – and constantly changing.

This is what any team aspires to: passion, unity, and absolute conviction that you can achieve whatever you want as a group.

What teamwork lessons can you learn from the Heat and apply to your team?

What Weeding a Flower Bed Reminded Me About Leadership

I have been in Nashville TN for the last several days on a business trip. Though I wrapped up late yesterday afternoon, I planned some extra time with my mother, who lives about 20 miles from Nashville. We went out for dinner last night and I asked her what she needed doing around the house.

This is the first time I have been back “home” since my father passed away and was buried in early March. Though my mother and I talk several times each week, I knew that there were things to do for her.

Consequently, by mid-morning I found myself pulling weeds in the numerous flower gardens around the house. Both my parents liked flowers and the wildlife they attracted. My dad in particular, was what you might call a natural gardener when it came to flowers. He didn’t believe in formal landscapes and flower beds “just so.” His method was more “that looks like a good place for a few flowers.”

As I was working in around the flower beds all morning, I was reminded of the countless times I had seen my dad as he was going from one place to another in our yard just stop and pull a weed out and toss it on the ground – to be chopped up by the mower later. There wasn’t a rhyme or reason to his actions; it was just something he did.

Small consistent actions over time make a big difference.

My dad had been in declining health since late last year, and had not been able to be out in the yard, there was a lot to do. By noon I was ready for a break. Sitting and drinking several glasses of water I thought about my Dad and how his constant weeding meant that the flower gardens looked pretty good all of the time; now, they looked overgrown.

I’m certainly nowhere near the gardener my Dad was. My several hours of work will make them look good for a few weeks maybe, and then they will have to be weeded again.

But once again, my Dad is my teacher.

Leaders need to understand that consistent, small actions invested in your team will pay big dividends along the journey.

Thanks, Dad.