What Makes a Team Work?

Why do some teams succeed while others don’t? Is it because the individuals that make up the team lack specific skills? Is it a failure of leadership? A clash of personalities?

Researchers have been trying to understand what makes certain groups succeed while others fail, and their insights may surprise you. Citing an experiment in which a group of business students and a group of kindergartners were asked to work together to build the tallest structure possible out of random materials, Daniel Coyle explains in his book The Culture Code why the team that consistently succeeded was not the one most people would assume to be the winner. In fact, through multiple trials of the experiment, the kindergartners succeeded time and time again.

Coyle explains that the problem with how we look at teamwork comes down to a misunderstanding about how effective organizations work. He writes, “We focus on what we can see—individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.”

We obviously can’t return ourselves to the mindsets of the kindergartners in the experiment, but there are some clearly identifiable qualities that make some teams more effective than others.

Daniel Coyle identifies three fundamental qualities that all successful teams share: safety, vulnerability, and purpose.


One thing that the researchers who conducted the building experiment noted was that unlike the adults, the kindergartners weren’t afraid to fail; they simply tried various strategies and discarded the ones that didn’t work. Successful groups create spaces in which failure is not only accepted but embraced as part of the learning process.


Working as part of a team always requires vulnerability—after all, sharing your ideas with others always bears the risk of rejection. Successful teams not only allow but encourage vulnerability. When everyone shoulders risks equally, the bonds of cooperation are strengthened.


The importance of narratives that establish values, purpose and goals cannot be overemphasized. They are the glue that binds all successful teams together. Actions taken by individual group members are always in the service of the larger narrative.

Would you add to or change any of the qualities listed above? Do you feel as though the teams you are currently a part of are working as well as they should be? What would you change? If you’d like to start a conversation, you can reach me via my website, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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