Learn the simple behaviors that cultivate winning teams.
I evaluate, build, and lead teams of people who are better than me. The goal of these groups are to design and implement innovative solutions to complex problems.
At Thinktiv, this involves designing entire companies from the ground up. Since I’m surrounded by people who can do things that I can’t, I continually reflect on these questions:
- How do I add value?
- When do I engage?
- When do I just get out of the way?
One of the places I search for wisdom is stories of master coaches.
John Wooden, the greatest sports coach of all time, started every season by showing his players how to put on their socks and shoes.
I have this mental image of a basketball gym in the 1960s. Wooden, at 5’10” with a face like an owl, is standing next to 7’2” Kareem Abdul-Jabbaar, then only 18 years old. Wooden bends down on one knee to the oversize foot of the future hall-of-fame athlete and says:
“Basketball is a game that’s played on a hardwood floor. To be good, you have to change your direction, change your pace. That’s hard on your feet. Your feet are very important. And if you don’t have every wrinkle out of your sock you’ll get blisters…Now pull it up in the back, pull it up real good, real strong. Now run your hand around the little toe area … make sure there are no wrinkles and then pull it back up. Check the heel area. We don’t want any sign of a wrinkle about it … The wrinkle will be sure you get blisters, and those blisters are going to make you lose playing time…” [1,2]
This anecdote is fascinating because it shows a master coach focusing on behavior that:
- Can be observed, taught, and modeled
- Can be practiced daily
- Is corollary to more complex behaviors and characteristics that lead to winning
#3 is a working hypothesis. Star players willing to take sock/shoe coaching seriously are more likely to exhibit the discipline, focus, and humility Wooden needed in his players and teams.
What behaviors are equal to “sock-smoothing” for teams responsible for driving innovation?
In this post, we’ll focus on the use of simple language and phrases.
But before talking specifics, let’s first review what research has shown leads to team success.
What makes a successful team?
A recent study by Google saw the following as stable characteristics of successful teams (at Google). [2,3]
- Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
- Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
- Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
- Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
- Impact of work: Do we believe that the work we’re doing matters?
Additionally, researchers at MIT  used sociometric data to conclude that on successful teams:
- Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet
- Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic
- Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader
- Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team
- Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back
Phrases used by winning teams
“I don’t know.”
“The bigger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.” –New York Methodist Pastor, Ralph W. Sockman 
To design novel solutions to complex problems you need to understand the boundaries of your team’s knowledge. This understanding helps teams target areas where they need to create new knowledge or confirm hypotheses. And a culture where people regularly admit their uncertainties helps create psychological safety necessary for team success.
Most people think that teams who struggle to say “I don’t know,” are ignorant or narcissistic. This is usually not the case. The inability to admit uncertainty comes from entrepreneurial scar tissue. As teams work to create something from scratch and disrupt the status quo, they have to fight for the things they believe need to exist in the world. This involves putting on an air of confidence that your idea or concept is the right one. There is a fear that saying “I don’t know” will result in others not being unwilling to follow or invest in a team’s idea.
When this “we have the right-answer” rhetoric pervades across all interactions of an organization or team, it can do more harm than good. For example, if in every meeting people are always trying to sell or argue for a specific point of view, it is hard to separate the signal (areas of high certainty and low risk) from the noise (areas where certainty is falsely projected).
“Teams who create space for wonder and embrace uncertainty are more innovative and successful.”
“[In poker] losers are always looking for certainty at the table. Winners are comfortable admitting to themselves what they don’t know.” –Howard Lederer, Professional Poker Player 
Successful teams can assert a compelling point of view based on limited data while also acknowledging the areas where their understanding and experience are lacking. Teams who create space for wonder and embrace uncertainty are more innovative and successful. They are better entrepreneurs. They know how to navigate risk and behave in a way that allows them to identify and exploit low-risk, high-certainty opportunities.
“I was wrong.”
When you’re trying to solve complex problems, it’s essential to have a “bias towards action.” As a rule of thumb, if you wait until you feel 100% confident that you’re doing the right thing, you are moving too slow. If you take this approach, you will be wrong a lot of the time.
The act of making something, putting it out into the world, and seeing what happens drives knowledge creation and innovation. This is only possible if you’re honest with yourself about whether you were successful or “right.” I have seen teams who struggle to answer the question, “What are the biggest mistakes or failures of this past year?” This inability to answer either means, A) they did not fail or make mistakes—highly unlikely; or B) they made mistakes and failed and just don’t remember—a recipe for repeating the same mistakes; or C) they are deliberately hiding their skeletons—a recipe for disaster.
A team where the phrase, “I was wrong (or we were wrong),” and “We failed,” is part of the everyday speak, creates the psychological safety necessary for experimentation, creativity, and speed.
One important note: it’s not just enough to admit that you (or your team) were wrong or failed. This needs to be coupled with active reflection around why you were wrong, and what you learned. As Ray Dalio says, “Pain + Reflection = Progress.” 
“You’ve been quiet.”
This phrase needs less unpacking. Popular leadership literature, as well as Google and MIT studies, show that in successful teams, each member is engaged. Groups with high awareness and emotional intelligence recognize when certain members are disproportionately quiet and seek to draw out their opinions and perspectives.
This is especially critical in teams that are diverse in age, gender, experience, cultural background, etc. It’s amazing how easy it is to defer to what unfortunately can be implicit cultural norms. For example, new hires coming in at a more junior-level will take a be-seen-not-heard approach in meetings. Or, someone who is in the minority (gender, race, ethnicity, political party, religion), not feeling comfortable speaking up.
“It’s not enough to just admit that you were wrong.”
I’m often surprised at the types of things the phrase “you’ve been quiet” uncovers. It ranges from a new idea or perspective, a risk that has been overlooked, an expert’s blind spot, something personal, etc. It almost always contributes to the team working together in more productive ways.
“Disagree with me.”
At Thinktiv, we use the terms Think and Make to describe the core actions of our work. Between these 2 words lies another verb: DISAGREE.
Teams who debate introduce what Nassim Taleb calls “productive randomness” . During debates, teams:
- Crystalize fresh ideas
- Prioritize information and knowledge
- Mitigate risks of groupthink by seeking out alternative opinions
Note that engaging in productive debate is not easy. Healthy debates are ones where the priority is knowledge creation. In unhealthy debates, knowledge creation takes a back seat to groups trying to prove they’re right or get their way.
Also, remember some people are more uncomfortable with conflict. If you’re someone who enjoys lively disagreement, and you usually assume the “alpha” role in groups, the phrase “Disagree with me,” is critical. It creates a safe space for others who are less inclined to engage in debate to speak up.
“Healthy debates are ones where the priority is knowledge creation.”
Smooth socks and simple phrases in practice
Write these phrases on a sticky note and take that into meetings with you as a personal reminder. If you want to level up, consider talking through these simple phrases with the teams you’re a part of. Set a collective intention for incorporating them into daily interactions. Also, look for other phrases that are unique to your team, culture, and mission.
The goal is to make the nuance of cultivating winning teams more manageable through simple behaviors, simple rules, and smooth socks.
In addition to the friends and colleagues who were kind enough to review and edit this post, this piece was also inspired by:
- Simple Rules: How to thrive in a complex word by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt
- An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Keegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, Matthew Miller, Andy Fleming, Deborah Helsing
- The Five Dysfunctions of a team, by Patrick Lencioni
- Wooden on Leadership, by John Wooden
- Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, by Charles Duhigg
- Trust Factor, The Science of Creating High Performance Companies, by Paul Zak
- HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Teams
- Wooden as a teacher: The first lesson was shoelaces.
- Coach John Wooden’s lessons on shoes and socks
- What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team
- The five keys to successful teams at Google
- Pentland, Alex. “The new science of building great teams.” Harvard Business Review 90.4 (2012): 60-69.
- As cited in Cairo, Alberto. The truthful art: Data, charts, and maps for communication. New Riders, 2016.
- As cited in Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. Random House Publishing Group. 2016
- Ray Dalio as cited in Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Laskow Lahey. An everyone culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization. Harvard Business Review Press, 2016.
- Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. Random House, 2012.
Jonathan is the Experience Design Director at Thinktiv, a strategy and innovation firm in Austin, TX, where he manages their ethnographic research and interaction design practices. He has worked with teams ranging from seed-round start-ups to Fortune 100 companies to design and ship successful businesses, products, and services. Jonathan is also an instructor at the Austin Center for Design where he teaches courses focused on Design Research in the context of large-scale social and humanitarian issues.