I. Teamwork: that shouldn't be too hard, eh?

Sooner or later, most people who want to make a difference in the world start thinking about how to have highly effective teams, teamwork, and collaboration.

On the surface, it seems like it should be simple and straightforward — if you and someone else both believe in the same cause, you're both competent at your individual roles, and you get along well between the two of you, you should be able to be an effective team.

Finding a third member of the team would just mean getting someone else who cares about the cause, is competent, and gets along with the two of you. And so on. Building teams should be easy and straightforward, no?


Ah, were it so simple! But anyone who actually attempts to do so, finds out that it's not the case.

I've been kicking around an idea about effective organizations for a year or two now, drawing on both personal experience in team-building and hiring and management, as well as historical case studies.

I was prompted to write this after reading the (excellent) A Dialogue on Rationalist Activism

"Well, for one thing, people would automatically pattern-match pretty much any attempt at forming an organizational structure to a "religion" or a "cult" even though what's actually being attempted is the literal opposite of those things. When it comes to actual formal documents specifying the objectives and structure of the organization, people would get endlessly caught up in relatively inconsequential choices of language or focus, perpetually bickering over the last 1% of linguistic distinction that separates their aims. You would think people who prize rationality would be able to shield themselves from the narcissism of small differences, but I suspect not, in reality."

Now, if you'd never actually tried to build a team in the real world to work on a problem, you might think seems insane. "...perpetually bickering over the last 1% of linguistic distinction that separates their aims..." — that wouldn't actually happen, right? What a waste of time, no?

II. Looking at the problem from different angles

And yet, you set out into the world to build a team and get collaboration going at scale, and, well, this often happens.

There's a lot of ways you could analyze this problem and look to overcome it.

You might look at it as a personnel challenge — do we have the right people and right mix of cognitive styles here?

You might look at it as an incentives challenge — how do we incentive people making tangible contributions and disincentivize, umm, "perpetual bickering."

You might look at it as skills challenge — how do we improve all teammates' communication skills, strategy, and prioritization?

The "perpetual bickering over the last 1%" problem is very real, and figuring out how to navigate it is a tricky challenge. Different fields and different organizations attempt to solve it in different ways.

In large open-source software projects, it's often solved by having a single final decisionmaker — the half-joking "Benevolent Dictator for Life" title being a common one in large-scale OSS projects.

III. Exclusionary Egalitarianism

In this post, I'd like to present one recurring pattern that at times leads to exceptional teamwork, and is rather counterintuitive — exclusionary egalitarianism.

On a quick look, this phrase seems like an oxymoron — when we tend of think of egalitarian groups, we tend to assume they're inclusive as a default.

But I think these are actually two separate spectrums:

Egalitarian <-> Hierarchical

Inclusive <-> Exclusive

I would strongly suspect that that preferences for egalitarian communication and structures highly correlates with preferences towards inclusivity, and likewise, preferences towards hierarchical communication and structures also correlates with preferences towards exclusivity.

If that's true, then you would tend to see two types of approaches to organizations dominating the world — first, an inclusive and egalitarian paradigm that has more members, more discussion, and less clearly defined and formal leadership structures; second, a more excluding and hierarchical paradigm that has fewer members, less discussion, and a more clearly defined formal leadership structure.

A stereotypical example of the first might be the 1960s-1970s peace movements in the United States; a stereotypical example of the second might be a very traditional Japanese corporation in a well-established field running on Confucian norms.

And yet, it seems like there's a rare and counterintuitive pattern that sometimes outperforms tremendously — a high standards bar and exclusivity towards joining, followed by very much egalitarian norms once people have made it.

A real world example might help illustrate.

Take this account of the Delta Force selection process, from Command Sergeant Major Eric Haney; emphasis added —

"Fifteen minutes later, we halted along the edge of what looked like a drop zone. "Holland DZ," I heard some of the Fort Bragg troops say as we dismounted.

Sergeant Major Shumate was standing nearby wearing khaki pants, a Hawaiian shirt, and a Panama hat. "Fall in on me, ladies!" he called. "Make it six ranks, I want a tight formation.

As we were forming up, somebody walked up with a camera and a tripod and prepared to take a photograph of the formation.

"What the hell's this about, Walt?" an anonymous voice squawked from somewhere in the crowd.

"This is going to be the 'before picture' of this group, my young darlings, and we'll take a second shot in a few weeks," Shumate replied.

I was aghast that someone had called a sergeant major by his first name, but Shumate seemed to take no offense. But when a small cluster of the men started laughing and yahooing within the group, like this was some sort of stupid joke, Shumate became steely. The jocularity in his voice came to a screeching halt and he growled in a volcanic tone, "Yeah, well, we'll see who's laughing when you motherf***ers are finished, and the next picture I take is about half the size of this front rank standing here. The serious ones will be in that photo and the rest of you s***birds will be back home, lying to your teammates about why you didn't make it. So since you loudmouths — and a bunch more of you besides — won't be here for the 'after photo,' I'll just have my laugh at you d***heads right now — ha-f***ing-ha!"

It was a sober group he addressed now as he called us to attention. The photographer took the shot and departed."

If you're familiar with general military decorum at all, that's already a surreal scene — the Sergeant Major running Delta Force selection showed up before a grueling test in a Hawaiian shirt... and across ranks, people just refer to each other by their first names instead of their full titles... this is unusual.

But actually, you find this pattern across nearly all elite American Special Forces type units — (1) an exceedingly difficult bar to get in, followed by (2) incredibly loose, informal, collegial norms with nearly-infinitely less emphasis on hierarchy and bureaucracy compared to all other military units.

To even "try out" for a Special Forces group like Delta Force or the Navy SEAL Teams, you have to be among the most dedicated, most physically fit, and most competent of soldier.

Then, the selection procedures are incredibly intense — only around 10% of those who attend selection actually make the cut.

This is, of course, exclusionary.

But then, seemingly paradoxically, these organizations run with far less hierarchy, formal authority, and traditional military decorum than the norm. They run... far more egalitarian than other traditional military unit.

IV. Assorted Challenges and Design Tradeoffs

Going back to the situation Moridinamael described —

"When it comes to actual formal documents specifying the objectives and structure of the organization, people would get endlessly caught up in relatively inconsequential choices of language or focus, perpetually bickering over the last 1% of linguistic distinction that separates their aims."

If we search out the root causes of this "perpetual bickering," we can find a few right away —

*When there's low standards of trust among a team, people tend to advocate more strongly for their own preferences. There's less confidence on an individual level that one's own goals and preferences will be reached if not strongly advocated for.

*Ideas — especially new ideas — are notoriously difficult to evaluate. When there's been no objective standard of performance set and achieved by people who are working on strategy and doctrine, you don't know who has the ability to actually implement their ideas and see them through to conclusion.

*Generally at the idea phase, people are maximally excited and engaged. People are often unable to model themselves to know how they'll perform when the enthusiasm wears off.

*In the absence of previously demonstrated competence, people might want to show they're fit for a leadership role or key role in decisionmaking early, and might want to (perhaps subconsciously) demonstrate prowess at making good arguments, appearing smart and erudite, etc.

And of course, many more issues.

Once again, this is often resolved by hierarchy — X person is in charge. In the absence of everyone agreeing, we'll do what X says to do. Because it's better than the alternative.

But the tradeoffs of hierarchical organizations are well-known, and hierarchical leadership seems like a fit for some domains far moreso than others.

On the other end of the spectrum, it's easy when being egalitarian to not actually have decisions get made and fail to have valuable work getting done. For all the flaws of hierarchical leadership, it does tend to resolve the "perpetual bickering" problem.

From both personal experience and a pretty deep immersion into the history of successful organizations, it looks like often an answer is an incredibly high bar to joining followed by largely decentralized, collaborative, egalitarian decisionmaking.

Of course, inclusivity-exclusivity and egalitarianism-hierarchy are both spectrums you can fall at many places along, but I think the following organizations all had some measure of this —

*The Los Alamos Laboratory: The key site for the Manhattan Project.

*Bell Labs: Invented a lion's share of modern computing.

*Lockheed Skunk Works: The fastest high-performance aircraft development project of all time.

*The aforementioned Delta Force and Navy SEAL Teams: Elite military units who regularly do seemingly impossible things.

*Bridgewater Associates: The largest and most profitable hedge fund of all time.

*DARPA: The key organization in inventing the Internet and Global Positioning System (GPS), among other noteworthy achievements.

To go back a little further and time, and to pick more "socially" focused groups which were very successful, regardless of how you feel about their aims —

*The Jesuit Order: Became more hierarchical over time, but started surprisingly egalitarian if you read the history.

*Bolsheviks: Famously split from Menshevik faction of RSDLP over inclusive/exclusive arguments. Took over Russia and then a large portion of the Earth. Again, became more hierarchical over time.

V. Concluding and Thinking

Obviously, both the words and concepts around modes of cooperation and action can be very emotionally-charged, but if you step back for a moment, you can see how there's assorted design challenges involved in building strong teams that are effective at advancing their mission.

As the original author noted,

"You would think people who prize rationality would be able to shield themselves from the narcissism of small differences, but I suspect not, in reality."

There's many design tradeoffs in building successful teams and organizations — it's hard to do.

And getting past haggling over trivialities doesn't guarantee success — quite the contrary, it's merely table stakes and a precursor for action and achievements to follow.

It's worth periodically thinking through and researching, understanding that different ways of structuring an organization, different ways of communicating, and different ways of selecting teammates is possible. Empirically, some methods work better than others at building strong teams that go out and do a lot of good in the world.

I have my own preferences, of course, as does everyone. Personally, I greatly prefer egalitarian and open dialog, communications, and decisionmaking within a team — but with the prerequisite that there's a high degree of trust and demonstrated competence among all team members.

For large-scale challenges, individual performance eventually falls off in importance relative to excellent team dynamics, and excellent team dynamics are a notoriously hard thing to get right.

It's definitely worth thinking about carefully, studying history to learn from past successes, testing different methods, and analyzing what went right and went wrong.

There's many different ways to build strong teams, and even more ways to fail to build strong teams. If you're looking to do something on a very large scale, it's eventually one of the most important things you'll need to get right.


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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:30 AM

A big obstacle for intra-team cooperation is having on your team the type of guy (sorry guys, but it's usually a guy) who takes everything as a dominance contest. -- You have a good idea? Sorry, it's not his idea, so we are not going to do it that way. You found a tiny mistake he made? Unless you want to spend the rest of the day arguing loudly about it, better pretend you didn't notice anything.

Problem is, some of these guys can actually become quite competent at what they do. (Not as great as they believe themselves to be, but still good.) Which is how they get into your team. And then things start going slowly downhill, but the cause is not obvious.

But if you want to have the spirit of egalitarianism while actually getting things done, you have to check people's competence before they join the team.

What organizations are hierarchical and inclusive?

Multi-level marketing.

Small formatting note: If you used markdown, you can make the * bullet lists into actual bullet lists, by just adding a space behind them (markdown syntax requires spaces between bullets and text)

Nice. Thanks. I'm due to learn Markdown...

To the extent that egalitarian and exclusive results in effective organizations, hierarchical and inclusive seems to be associated with some of the least effective organizations in the world: charitable organizations. Or at least this is my impression of these types of orgs: they tend to be inclusive because they think they want to include everyone but also tend to be run with "empty" hierarchies that prevent anyone who would make them effective from doing anything. Not to say it has to be that way, but my impression is that they often do end up this way; I can think of some notable exceptions and they benefit their mission tremendously for overcoming what seems to be the default of well meaning leadership holding on to power while wanting lots of people to be included but not giving them the authority to do anything.

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