Stage hands

Given that human beings have managed to work in groups pretty consistently for tens of thousands of years, you'd have thought we might have cracked it well before now. However, an entirely unrepresentative analysis – that is, a quick search on Amazon – reveals that there are 3,385 books on the subject of "teamwork". That's a lot of people, it seems, who have either worked out the secrets of high performing teams, or perhaps just wish to encourage us to part with our money.

But can't someone just give us the headlines and distil the very essence of high performing teams, to be used more generally in different circumstances? Even if some set of basic principles could be established, where might one look first?

I have a confession: the theatre is a great passion of mine and a good number of my best friends are, or have been, successful in the business. I've spent a lot of time variously in and around the theatrical process and observed something quite profound: theatre folk take teamwork very seriously and they are actually very good at it.

Actors, a director, designers, technicians etc. are brought together for a production and, in the space of a just a few weeks, will manage to create a show ready for a paying audience. Bringing such a diverse group of people together, many of whom may not have worked with each other before, to deliver such an outcome, is only practicable if the formula to do it is proven to work.

It appears to me that at the heart of any successful theatrical production are four principles which, when taken together, create the conditions for high performing teams to flourish. This is what I have observed and, although I don't suppose this discovery quite replaces those 3,385 books on Amazon, it has helped me to be successful in other, non-theatrical, situations in the past.

1. A Common Purpose. Everyone in the company of cast and crew is there for the same reason (i.e. to put on a play): the team has a common purpose. Certainly, individuals will have a different job to do and, obviously, each has their individual objectives. The actor's job is to bring the writer's characters to life. The stage manager's is to run the show from behind the scenes, ensuring the actors are in the right place at the right time and with the right props. Yet there is no doubt: "the play's the thing" and, ultimately, this is what everyone is working towards. Jobs don't conflict with each other; they are mutually supportive.

2. A Common Way of Working. This is the "how", if you like. In the theatre, there is generally a way of working that is well understood by all; there is a common language. For example – "stage left" is to the actor's left when standing on stage facing the audience. Common terms are known and used by everyone in the company to ensure accurate and effective communication; it's just easier that way. In addition, the responsibilities and accountabilities of each role, e.g. actor, lighting designer, prop maker etc. are clear, both to the individual whose job it is (needless to say, this is a prerequisite) and to everyone else in the company too – even if they rarely come into contact with each other. For example, it is well understood by all in the company that one role of the stage manager (which may be delegated) involves annotating the script with the director's decisions during the rehearsal process and to "cue" the lighting and sound effects during every performance. In the theatre, a common way of working such as this serves to channel and so liberate creativity, not to stifle it: the creative process itself remains unconstrained.

3. A Personal Stake. Everyone in the company has a personal stake in what they do. By this I don't mean that there just exists a system of reward or compensation - a percentage of box office takings for example. A personal stake in this context is not really related to material gain. Something has to matter to each and every person on a genuinely personal and emotional level. At its most fundamental, this is about having a passionate belief in the cause or, at the very least, the avoidance of an adverse emotional experience. It could be both, of course, but the key thing is that people are personally motivated to be successful.

Here's an example. Imagine the actor who didn't work hard enough at learning their lines. Try to put yourself in their shoes: alone on a bare stage; a thousand staring eyes; an irretrievably blank memory; the rising panic... A pretty unpleasant experience – although by no means a threat to life and limb. Because the actor has a personal stake in the production, it is likely that they will be motivated to learn their lines properly.

In my experience, people generally want to do what they believe is right and don't want to let others down. Having a personal stake, such as a "passionate belief in the cause" or indeed the "avoidance of an adverse emotional experience", is a powerful motivator. This is a personal point of view, of course, although I suggest people generally don't want to look silly, they don't want to be embarrassed and they don't want their reputation (professional or personal) to suffer. Ultimately, everybody needs to choose for themselves, but if the consequences of preventable failure are personally and powerfully significant, it's more likely – I think – that each individual will work to ensure success.

4. Joint Accountability. Finally, there must be joint accountability – no one can be successful on his or her own. Or put another way, there is simply no other option available but for each and every person in the company to work together. Success comes to all or none.

Consider the set designer who conceives the most beautiful and extravagant staging. The stage itself revolves; scenery reconfigures effortlessly to transport the actors across centuries and continents before the audience's eyes... Such effects only really work if the designer collaborates with other departments (lighting, costumes, actors etc.) to ensure they are deeply involved in the process too and that all components can come together to reinforce each other.

Joint accountability is about creating an unbreakable inter-dependence between each other. We've been conditioned to think that heroes are good – like Superman, they always save the day. But heroes generally operate apart from others and they reap their own rewards.

The key point to note here is that, to be successful, each person in the company completely relies on at least one other person to do their job successfully. It sounds circular – and it is. Success for the individual in isolation cannot occur – it has to be built into the system to make it like this. The equation only ever works one way: success for an individual is only achieved due to the success of the team. Success for the team is not accomplished due to the success of an individual.

Jonathan Gregory is an experienced enterprise architect and helps organisations develop their strategies for Digital and IT transformation.