The Lessons of Creative Teams

Published: October 6, 2020
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Teams often evolve like the arc of a crescendo in music. There’s a specific time in the team’s lifespan where the tension is supposed to build and, eventually, give way to resolution. In most songs, it happens near the end. In teams, the buildup is experienced as dissonance. When differences get worked out, it feels like harmony. The tension is the work and the resolution is the play.

It’s easiest to see in creative teams. Whether writing a song, crafting a novel, making a movie, designing a video game or hosting a think-tank incubator, there is a trajectory. The ‘Hero’s Journey’ template popularized by Joseph Campbell provides a narrative for this arc.

The story begins in the common world where an uncommon problem beckons a call to adventure. The ‘hero’ is initially reluctant to answer the call but is encouraged by a mentor to accept the challenge. The ordeal he or she endures is eventually rewarded. The hero re-enters the normal world and bestows the gift of the journey to the people. The elixir provides the cure and the world is a better place.

Creative teams offer valuable lessons when the common world serves up uncommon problems. Any teammate can assume the hero role. Any teammate can embrace the mentor role. The team’s narrative is the adventure. There’s work in the form of apprehension, peril and vulnerability. There’s play in the form of exploration, discovery and invention. One doesn’t happen without the other.

Authors and their publishing teams know the journey intimately. Writing a book begins as a hobby. It’s fun. You can camp in front of your fireplace in a comfy chair and peck away at your laptop. When friends ask, “What’s new?” you can tell them you’re writing a book. Pretty cool, huh? Soon, the book becomes your friend and you want to spend more time with it. Then, it becomes your spouse and the exclusive relationship starts happening at the expense of other relationships. Eventually, a team of editors and publishers are welcomed to the team and the book becomes a beast that tries to destroy you. In time, you overtake the beast and give your art to the world.

Think about why authors write books. Beyond the joy of creation, there’s a desire to make the world a better place through the sharing of art, insight, knowledge and perspective. The team surrounding the author joins the same mission. When the process works properly, it becomes the elixir or the cure and the world is, indeed, a better place because of it.

This magic is not limited to creative teams. All teams travel through cycles of tension and resolution. Problems are constantly being solved. These days, it is the rare team that doesn’t have to recreate itself. The common world has served up an uncommon problem.

Effective teams know how to follow the creative arc. They understand the purpose of the tension and accept the discomfort that precedes the crescendo. The conflict that defines the work will give way to the adventure that defines the play.

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Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.