A Q&A with Rich Karlgaard & Michael S. Malone

July 15, 2015


We continue our Thinker in Residence with Rich Karlgaard and Mike Malone with some questions about their great new book, Team Genius.

"Human beings ... have always formed teams because as individuals we are all incomplete. It is the nature of the human brain to form unique personal, even eccentric, strengths and weakness. Thus, the more people we can bring together to tackle a given task, the more likely we are to have all of the tools we need to find the best solution."
—Michael S. Malone

As I said yesterday, Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone, coauthors of Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations, were two of our favorite writers here at 800-CEO-READ individually before they penned this timely and helpful exploration of teams as a team. What I didn't know about them before this interview just how long they've known each other, and that they've teamed up many times before both professionally and personally. What I love about their answers here is that it lets us readers get to know them both a little bit more, as their responses put their styles so clearly on display—Karlgaard quick, concise, concentrated intelligence, and Malone with a more meandering, pondering, pontificating wisdom that is in the end still just as on and to the point. It's a great balancing of complementary minds that they'll teach you in their book how to achieve in your own teams.

So, let's get to know them and the ideas in Team Genius a bit more...

800-CEO-READ: You write that teams are "as old as life itself," and chronicle throughout the book how the success of humans throughout our history has been due largely to "small, highly functioning teams." And, in this age of seemingly ever larger organizations, you tell us that they're just as, if not more important to our continued success today. Why is that?

Rich Karlgaard: Large organizations set themselves up for failure. Look at the following recent whiffs: The rollout of President Obama's health care plan. The debacle of the new F-35 fighter jet. The European Union. These were failures not of stupid people, but of smart and dedicated people. In each case, size was thought to be their advantage. But it was their liability! Size caused these projects to be overstaffed, muddled, slow and stubborn.

Michael S. Malone: Human beings, even proto-humans, have always formed teams because as individuals we are all incomplete. It is the nature of the human brain to form unique personal, even eccentric, strengths and weakness. Thus, the more people we can bring together to tackle a given task, the more likely we are to have all of the tools we need to find the best solution.

This was certainly the case up through the early years of the Industrial Revolution. The rise of the modern corporation was made possible in part by the use of new communications tools to tie together teams into ever-larger hierarchies. However, as organizations got larger, the crucial role of teams was subordinated to the bigger picture. They were still there, of course—new product teams, sales teams, etc.—but their importance was devalued.

That's changed with the rise of the modern Internet-driven global marketplace. Why? Speed. Big organizations simply can't move, turn and adapt fast enough to keep up with the pace of modern business. They need small, fast-moving operations that can scout out, capture and hold new market opportunities long enough for their companies to move in. And those small, functional units are those oldest of non-related human groupings: teams.

8cr: I think we all prefer and drift toward teams of like-minded individuals that can stay on the same page. But you believe that more homogeneous, comfortable teams actually have a fundamental flaw, and that more diversity and discord actually improves team performance. How so, and how do we stop that discord from becoming destructive?

RK: The best teams are liked-minded in purpose. They passionately share a goal. But in practice they are highly diverse in thinking style, background, and experience. They argue and fight, but all for a common purpose. This may look like raucous discord, but it is actually the way to discovery and truth.

MM: The great paradox of teams, we've learned, is that the desire to be part of great productive and successful teams collides with an even greater human desire: for happiness. We naturally prefer to be with people who are like us: common beliefs and attitudes, common backgrounds, but most of all, common cognitive processes. We get along best with people whose brains like our own—empirical or creative, detail-oriented or big picture, verbal or mathematical or visual, etc. Indeed, we often get along better with a complete stranger whose brain is like our own than life-long neighbors (even family members) whose brains are not, despite the wealth of common experiences and culture.

By comparison, extensive research over the last two decades has shown that the most effective teams are composed of members whose brains are the most different, who see the world in antithetical ways. This stands to reason: as I said in my previous answer, the more people of different cognitive 'types' we can bring together, the more likely we'll cover all scenarios and find the most successful strategy. One research study went so far as to suggest that the optimal team balance is 20-40 percent 'creative', 10-20 percent 'conformist', and up to 10 percent 'detail-oriented', filling in the rest with other talent.

And you are right: the problem with these maximally diverse teams is that they have an intrinsic volatility. They can easily implode, or disintegrate into feuds and fights. They also aren't naturally 'fun,' but merely functional. The key, then, is to figure out how to keep them together and, if nothing else, harmonious. That can be accomplished through a combination of:

  1. Sophisticated communications and regular meetings to promote harmony and catch conflict early;
  2. A well-established set of rules for interaction and recognition to help create a strong team culture; and
  3. A strong team leader/manager to hold things together.

In the end, it takes great leaders to make possible great teams. For that, there's no real short-cut.

8cr: In all the studies, stories, and scientific evidence you cite, it seems that rather than being inherently selfish (as I think popular opinion has it), man is actually hardwired to be cooperative. How is this true, and how can leaders tap into it?

RK: This is the essence of Team Genius. Teams are not social constructs, but are hardwired into our brains. The last 25% of human brain size, that which separates Neanderthals from us, is where we get our capacity for language and empathy—the pillars of collaboration needed for survival in a hostile and competitive world.

MM: Early man physically manifests the need for teamwork. We survived, and then ultimately triumphed, as animals because we are 'compromise' creatures: omnivorous, not particularly strong or fast or endowed with superior traits beyond intelligence. So, physically, we are designed to adapt to almost anything thrown at us. This same compromise also lends itself towards working as teams: we can bring together our personal adaptions to the outside world to come up with something better.

Biochemically and neurologically, this seems to be the case as well. Certain human hormones, notably oxytocin (the same stimulator of birth contractions and orgasms), induce group trust and social interaction—enabling us to overcome any natural suspicions of 'others.' At the same time, 'mirror' neurons in our brains seem to enhance our empathy for others, enabling us to learn together from shared experiences at least as well as we learn on our own. That natural advantage is a great incentive for team formation.

8cr: It is important to know how, and how big, to build teams. But you also counsel leaders that it's important to know how and when to dismantle them—even seemingly successful and well-functioning ones. What are some of the signs that a team's usefulness is coming to an end, and how do you reorganize them in a way that improves overall morale instead of killing it?

RK: It's time to shake up a successful team when campfire stories become canonized into clichs. The way to do it is to: (1) acknowledge the past successes, (2) honor the contributors, and (3) make it clear why the successful team is being dissolved and distributed... to populate the rest of the organization with successful team's DNA. Treat this as a celebration, an opportunity for new adventures.

MM: As already noted, creating a culture is vital to keeping diverse (and thus volatile) teams together. And that includes team rituals developed over the course of thousands of years, but which we've largely forgotten: official beginnings, recognitions of achievement and contribution, honoring departures, and team retirement. It turns out that how teams end is as important as how they begin—because it sets the stage for what follows. It also establishes an official finish, rather than letting the team drag on into inconsequence, inertia or acrimony. There's nothing worse than a great team that has outlived its value and begins to destroy its own legacy—even as it keeps it members from going on to other, perhaps greater, things.

In the book we use as our example Washington's Farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City in December 1783—a masterpiece of stage management by one of the greatest team leaders in history. It helped set the stage for the creation and survival of the United States of America.

How do you know when a team is coming to an end? If you've done your job right as its leaders, you've established that milestone from the very start... and as it approaches, you prepare the team for retirement.

8cr: As I've told our readers many times while talking about this book, you are two of our favorite writers here at 800-CEO-READ... so let me ask you: How did you enjoy the experience of teaming together on this book, and should we expect another collaboration at some point in the future?

RK: Mike Malone (along with Steve Forbes, George Gilder, and my wife) is one of my all-time favorite collaborators and co-conspirators. Great guy. Great to hang around with. We helped launch Silicon Valley's first business magazine, Upside, and we helped make a Forbes tech magazine, Forbes ASAP, a huge success. We once talked the great Tom Wolfe into writing one of his best essays, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," in 1996. Mike and I can finish each other's sentences, but we also have complementary viewpoints. He was raised in Silicon Valley and is its best writer and historian. He knew Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak before they started Apple. I'm the Midwest outsider who came here as a college student and works for an NYC publisher.

MM: Oh sure. Rich and I have known each other for thirty years. He created his first magazine (Upside) based on my writing style, and I worked for him as a contributing editor when he founded and created Forbes ASAP—the editorship of which he handed over to me when he became publisher of Forbes. We've been constantly in touch over the years, had kids the same age, and we live about two miles apart. We also have coffee together every month or so at place halfway between our homes.

What's surprising about all of this is that we didn't collaborate on a book sooner. We didn't set out to write Team Genius—rather it sort of arose organically over lunch at a restaurant in the middle of Silicon Valley's venture capital neighborhood. I was working on The Intel Trinity and Rich on The Soft Edge—and the conversation came around to the Intel founders, Steve Jobs and his (mostly) invisible partners, and the myth of the Lone Entrepreneur valley hero. Out of that arose Team Genius.

"Teams are not social constructs, but are hardwired into our brains.
The last 25% of human brain size, that which separates Neanderthals from us,
is where we get our capacity for language and empathy—the pillars of collaboration needed for survival in a hostile and competitive world."
—Rich Karlgaard


Since Mr. Malone just mentioned them, I suppose this is a decent place to segue into Mike and Rich's 2014 books, The Intel Trinity and The Soft Edge. If you'd like to learn more about those books, both amongst the very best of last year, we covered both in our Jack Covert Selects review series last year:

Then, check out our Jack Covert Selects review of Team Genius


Once you're done there, I'm sure you'll want to dive in a little more, so head on over to ChangeThis to read Rich and Mike's manifesto about The Genius of Teams. And be sure to check in tomorrow as we wrap up the series with some thoughts from the authors about business and the books that influenced them.

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