[Editor’s Note: This is a joint post from Michelle Agner and I. We are both fans of Avengers and other superheroes and thought it would be fitting to team up on this post today.]
In the early 90’s I was that little boy who thought he was Wolverine.
I would hack and slash my way across the playground as I stuck sticks between my clenched fists and fought trees until they were scraped up like a knee hitting pavement. Being Wolverine, I was the best at what I did, and what I did was get cancer.
My arch-nemesis quickly became Leukemia and – just like Wolverine – I planned to overcome it with my intense healing abilities. Why the other children in the cancer ward hadn’t thought of this puzzled me.
So as I waited for my chemo to finish or pills to work, my comics weren’t far away.
Was it a swift and overwhelming victory? No. Leukemia reared its head once again as most super villains do, but in the end this hero prevailed.
Nineteen years later, I have to admit I’m still a fan of those super heroes, and who could blame me? They saved my life, after all 😉
But today I want to look at a different lesson these heroes taught me. Something that can apply to the grown up fanboys and fangirls we’ve become.
I want to look at the art of team building from the perspective of one of the most dysfunctional teams in fictional history… The Avengers.
[SPOILER ALERT – much of what we share from this point on will discuss specific scenes and milestones in the movie. If you haven’t seen the film yet, read past this point at your own risk. ]
So without further delay, I present you with The Avengers’ Top Ten Tips for Building Remarkable Teams:
1. Understand Your Team’s Super Powers
Writer/director Joss Whedon explained in a recent interview that they purposefully crafted The Avengers so new audience members wouldn’t need to have seen its related films (IronMan, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America) in order to enjoy and understand the story line in this one.
But those of us who have seen the prior films experienced a higher level of enjoyment, if you ask me.
Why is that?
Because we know the back-story.
By having seen the prior movies we’ve watched each of these characters acquire, develop and use their superpowers. We know what they can do, and we know what unique experiences helped create those special talents.
We already know that Captain America can lead his men into an impossible, dismal battle situation and he will prevail.
We know that Thor, a living god previously humbled in his own movie, is a stellar team player with an affection for and loyalty to Earth.
We’re aware that Dr. Bruce Banner is an expert gamma radiation specialist with a (usually) mild manner and loads of insight and wisdom beneath the surface. In addition to that super-strength smashing talent the big green guy offers.
And we get that Tony Stark is very resourceful, highly intelligent, and has a heart of…glowy blue stuff, actually. Once you get past his brash exterior, of course.
But as The Avengers reluctantly come together, they don’t yet know these things about each other.
They don’t understand yet how they’ll best complement each others’ strengths and weaknesses, how they will all eventually understand who the best person for each task is when a new need pops up, or how to best strategize and ensure the greatest level of success with their limited resources.
LESSON: Because it takes valuable time to learn each others’ back-stories and understand each person’s superpowers, do whatever you can to shrink that learning curve within your own team.
Strike up a superpowers conversation at your next team meeting. Or formalize it into a group exercise and have team members share their greatest accomplishments, the history behind their expertise and what their goals are. It might just help you all come together and more effectively take on the “villainy” you face in your corporate life.
2. …And Understand Their Kryptonites
We all have our weaknesses, and The Avengers are no exception.
IronMan needs massive battery power, Captain America relies on his shield, and Dr. Banner balances on a tightrope of control.
When Loki comes aboard the helicarrier smiling, it’s obvious that he’s there for a reason of his own. And it sparks an immediate brainstorming session on what the team’s weaknesses are and how Loki might be trying to leverage them.
When The Avengers discover that Loki’s plan is to cause Banner to Hulk out, destroy the carrier, and effectively eliminate his enemies in one fell swoop, the team does their best to prevent it – or at least minimize the damage.
LESSON: In the business world, knowing your team members’ weaknesses (and their strategic vulnerabilities) is as important as knowing their strengths.
3. Avoid the Hulk Smash: Watch for Differing Communication Styles
Super heroes come with super personalities. And sometimes the workplace can feel the same way.
So what do you do when you have differing communication styles? Who better to learn from than Captain America and IronMan?
While Tony Stark and Steve Rogers share the goal of capturing Loki, they go about it very differently. Their personal communication styles are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
As we already know, Stark has a witty, sassy exterior and is outright flippant at times. He’s wonderfully entertaining as we view him from our cushy theater seats, but would we enjoy working with this brash rebel on a team? In most cases, no.
Steve Rogers is highly trusting of SHIELD and General Fury early on. He is respectful of authority, has a low-key communication style, and displays an analytical nature when he’s not in battle. Rogers can’t get past Stark’s incessant self-focus, his skeptical nature, or Stark’s seeming lack of seriousness regarding the pending crisis at hand. Despite the fact that both Stark and Rogers actually want to achieve the same objective, they end up in each other’s faces, shouting.
LESSON: Look past the differences in personal communication style and you might just see that you actually share the same goal.
Don’t let a conflict of styles add to the challenge already in front of you. Making this conscious effort isn’t always easy, but it beats losing your cool, reacting to another team member, and letting that drama distract you from your ultimate goal.
4. “The World Is Ending!” Or Why Every Team Needs a Common Goal
Shortly after Steve Rogers and Tony Stark were about to start throwing punches at each other, they were saving each others’ lives.
At the start of the helicarrier attack scene, the situation quickly turned. One second they were mired in interpersonal conflict, Rogers taunting Stark about his lack of superpowers by saying “Go get your suit!” And the next moment Rogers conveys that they need to react immediately: “Go get your suit!”
Same phrase. The important difference? A common goal.
Once their ship is attacked and they are in eminent danger, Rogers and Stark are able to pull out of their interpersonal conflict and focus on saving the world.
LESSON: Having a common goal helps us overlook the inconsequential crap and focus on the task at hand, utilizing each others’ strengths.
Even though that teammate might not be someone you’d choose to hang out with for fun, there are times you’d really like him by your side. Don’t wait for eminent danger to arrive before you’re willing to see past that inconsequential crap.
5. An Evil Arch-Nemesis Is The Ultimate Motivator
Before the death of Agent Coulson, we saw the slowly developing team begin to understand their combined strengths and weaknesses.
Contributions by Banner and Natasha Romanoff provided some vision as to how the group might actually become an effective team and tackle the threat they would soon be facing.
But after Loki killed the kind and loyal Agent Coulson?
That’s when they truly gelled.
Once the team was impacted by Coulson’s loss – and they fully understood Loki’s overall mission – there was no stopping them. No more fistfights, no more internal criticisms. From that point forward, all their energy went toward stopping Loki.
An executive-level business coach I know told me the story of how he’s used this tip to transform teams within an organization. When a particularly challenging team was not making progress after some basic-level coaching, he and his executive client proclaimed, “We need to create an external enemy so these people don’t kill each other.”
Seems an evil arch-nemesis can be even more powerful than we thought, eh?
LESSON: Cooperation & effectiveness has little to do with skill or strategy, and everything to do with the desire to work effectively and triumph over an external enemy.
Truly effective teamwork is the result of the individual team members choosing to make a difference.
6. Monster, God, or Soldier…We All Belong
Members of an effective team have a strong sense of belonging and contribution, regardless of their beginnings.
Sure, there was a God of Thunder in the same room as a Green Monster and a WWII hero, but did their diverse backgrounds prevent them from achieving greatness? No.
When it all was said and done, it didn’t matter what they were as much as who they were. And I can’t think of a bigger team building activity than saving Manhattan from scaly, lizard-like space aliens.
LESSON: While your team members’ back-stories are important to understanding them better, the past only matters so much.
The sense of belonging each member feels is important to the team’s overall effectiveness. Providing activities and team-building opportunities can increase that sense of belonging.
7. Embrace Your Team’s Uniqueness & Create Massive Results
There’s no arguing that the other Marvel movies all had strong box office openings.
But they simply can’t compare to performance of this film.
At the time of this writing, The Avengers raised its domestic total sales to $523.6 million. That makes it the #4 movie on the all-time domestic revenue chart. And it’s only the fourth film to top half a billion dollars.
From an (admittedly informal) survey I performed among friends, family & coworkers, it’s clear that even folks who don’t normally see a movie more than once have returned to the theater for a repeat viewing of this one.
Why is that, you ask?
Well, I think it’s due to the strong cast of truly original, unique, and dynamic characters. No one could leave that movie and say, “Yawn…all the characters seemed alike.”
LESSON: Every team member is valuable for their unique experiences, points of view, knowledge, and opinions.
Creating an environment that acknowledges and supports that statement can generate massive results.
8. Take a Superhero Timeout
Whether in the movies or in the comics they’re based off of, every superhero team inevitably reaches a point where they realize what they are doing isn’t working.
Sound like your office?
Once again, The Avengers are no exception.
In the climactic scene, our team is destroying ship after ship, alien after alien, and then they realize they can’t keep it up. Their strategy is not generating long-term results – it’s using up their limited resources without making overall progress.
So they regroup and rethink their plan. Everyone comes together with ideas about what changes are necessary, and what sacrifices need to be made.
LESSON: What feels like progress day-to-day doesn’t always fit the big-picture definition of success. If you don’t step back, reassess and consider changes to your original game plan, you could lose the battle.
9. Consider a Fastball Special: The Art of Tag-Teaming
Back in the 1960’s comics, Wolverine and Colossus came up with what would become one of the most well known superhero moves of all time…the fastball special.
They knew that just pounding villains in their normal one-on-one approach wasn’t going to cut it. After taking stock, they discovered that if they really wanted to defeat the mischief-maker they were going to have to do something unexpected…something called teamwork. (It was a novel concept back then.)
So Wolverine would climb up on Colossus’ gigantic shoulders and curl up in a ball while Colossus would hurl Wolverine 220 mph toward their foe, winning the day.
The Avengers were similarly innovative, breaking into sub-teams and using their abilities in tandem with each other.
We see IronMan rounding a corner, announcing to the team, “Bringing them your way” so the others can take out the aliens, one by one.
When Black Widow is seeking a way from the street to the top of Stark Tower, she depends on Captain America to help her get there by tossing her skyward, onto a speeding alien hovercraft-motorcycle-thing.
As Black Widow gets into trouble with the aliens as she rides the hovercraft to the top of Stark Tower, Hawkeye has her back, successfully delivering arrows deep into the aliens’ eye sockets.
LESSON: Take a creative approach within your team dynamic.
Do individual team members have talents that aren’t being maximized by combining them with the skills of other team members? What results could you create if you considered a more innovative approach?
10. Don’t Worry About Who’s The Best Superhero
Sure, you could argue about who-would-beat-who in a big superhero showdown, but what this film demonstrated so beautifully was that it’s not about who was the strongest, the smartest, or the fastest.
In the final battle scene, Captain America outlined strategy and gave the orders, Hawkeye called the recon, and Hulk smashed.
No one within the team stopped to ask, “Hey, why is Cap in charge?” And when a NYC cop asked a form of that same question, he didn’t wait for a reply once he saw Captain America kick some serious alien butt. He just followed orders.
By that point in the film our formerly dysfunctional group of individuals had developed into a well-oiled machine….taking direction from each other without question, relying on each others’ strengths, and having faith in the team’s ability to save the world.
LESSON: While some healthy workplace competition can be beneficial, the most effective teams prioritize the group and the goal, with personal recognition and accolades as an afterthought.
Do any of these lessons ring true in your experience? What kind of superhero team victory have you been a part of?