How Smart Teams Fail

A designer friend of mine who has done websites in Germany recently described that process to me as requiring a totally different design mindset than designing for audiences in America or the U.K. His reasoning?

“The Germans actually read documentation - you can’t give them too much text. Try that on a web page here [the U.S.] and your visitors are gone.”

His observation reminded me of a story from the Hardcore History podcast about the brilliant German Army General Staff’s plan to win World War I (mind you, this is long before the Nazis). With characteristic German precision, they devised a plan to defeat the French within a 900-hour window in order to move troops back east to defeat the Russians. Every imaginable detail was accounted for in the plan, down to the widths of the Belgian country roads they’d march through. A hundred years later, the plan’s level of detail is still amazing.

Of course, despite their unparalleled planning, the plan also failed. The German Empire and its best-in-the-world army were history five years later.

I don’t celebrate failure, but I’m interested by it. The more brilliant the parties involved, the more compelling it is.

The reasons why the best and brightest still manage to fail is beyond the reach of a blog post. But if we scale the question back a little bit to ask how smart people make bad business decisions, we can spot some recurring patterns and think about what we as colleagues, employees, and managers can do to prevent it.

How Smart People Fail

Excluding greed and corruption, many instances in which smart people make bad decisions have their roots in some familiar pathologies:

Overconfidence – This is maybe the most obvious culprit for why smart people make bad decisions. Over-confidence in your ability to bend the world to your will can backfire badly if you layer speculation on top of theory on top of estimates. In addition, the more success some people experience, the less receptive they sometimes get to others’ opinions. When you stop paying attention to other peoples’ perspectives, you increasingly limit your decision making influences to the patterns you recognize. That puts you at greater risk of applying lessons from a past situation to a new one in which they don’t apply.

Lack of Scalability – In general, the presence of highly talented people can lead to under-investment in repeatable processes in young companies. When you have a rock star CEO or head of sales who’s capable of closing new clients on their own, there’s less pressure to define a sales process right away. Just send that person to every meeting. But processes aren’t for the rock stars; they’re to generate predictable revenue from the rest of the organization. Leaning on one or two uber-talented people is okay in the earliest stages, but if those people don’t figure out how to scale what they’re capable of, the business can’t keep growing.

Interpersonal Failings – Fortunately for me, the smartest people I’ve worked with have usually been self-aware and colleagues. Obviously, that’s not always the case though. Some people actively stop caring about being nice or respecting other peoples’ intelligence. The problem is, you can’t get away with that just because people know you’re smarter than they are. You have to be MUCH smarter than everyone else and also create enough value for them that they’ll look past a bad personality and stick around. Very few people clear that bar. Chances are, if you’re super smart, you probably work around other people who are smart. They’ll eventually take their talents elsewhere if the culture sucks.

Sunk Costs - It's never fun to admit that an idea just didn't work. The exceptionally bright are as susceptible as the rest of us to not letting go of a failed plan. 

How a Team Fails

One of the experiences I think many can relate to is being in a meeting where most of the participants disagree with the decision being made, but the power dynamics keep anyone in the room from objecting. It’s an uneasy feeling, scanning the room for anyone who looks like they might share your objections and coming up empty. The collective failure to act can happen for a few reasons, in my experience.

  • The decision maker is dead-set on a course of action, so objections seem pointless
  • No one wants to be the person to confront the decision maker 
  • The objections have all been raised before, and people don’t want raise them again and sound like they're not being a team player
  • That no one else is objecting makes dissenters second guess their point of view, so they don't share it

This is how smart teams make bad decisions: one person makes a bad decision and then no one else does anything about it. Sometimes you’ll have a new person on the team who doesn’t mind stirring the pot. As time goes on though, too many people seem to lose their enthusiasm for asking questions and just fall in line.

So…don’t be that person.

It sounds simple, but the first, best thing you can do is lay out reasonable objections to an idea when you have them – preferably with a counter-proposal. Sometimes you’ll be surprised that all it took was for someone to start the conversation to end up in a better place.

When that doesn’t work, and you’ve convinced that you’re heading down the wrong path, sometimes the best you can do is establish a contingency plan with a team. Framing your proposal as, “If A doesn’t work, we should try B and C…” can take the edge off things if you’re keen to avoid confrontation or working with someone who gets prickly when their authority is challenged.

Sometimes, you have no choice but to suck it up and go through with a project or strategy you believe to be flawed. If you’ve raised your concerns and argued for another option unsuccessfully, it’s your job to give the plan a fair shot at success. Keep the other options in your back pocket, validate your ideas to give them some heft, and give it your best shot.  

Just don’t be a wallflower.