Extreme Teams: Why Pixar, Netflix, Airbnb, and Other Cutting-Edge Companies Succeed Where Most Fail, by Robert Bruce Shaw. American Management Association, publication date 2017. $27.95.
Book Review by Jonathan Groner
What are “extreme teams”? Management consultant Robert Bruce Shaw wrote this incisive and fascinating new book to explain what makes certain companies’ use of workplace teams “extreme,” a word of unqualified praise in this book, and to show how other firms can benefit from these seven companies’ experiences. Shaw chooses Pixar, Airbnb, Patagonia, Whole Foods, Alibaba, Zappos and Netflix as the corporate examples that he returns to throughout the book. These are seven companies in very diverse industries, and as Shaw explains, they also have very diverse corporate cultures. Each company is “extreme” in its own way.
“Cutting-edge firms,” Shaw writes, “are those that understand the potential power of teams and are willing to experiment with new approaches . . . These seven companies are constantly experimenting with better ways of operating – and don’t simply replicate what others have done. In this regard, they are interesting firms with a level of energy and creativity often missing in more traditional groups.”
Importantly, this is not just another book about the importance of teamwork in business. Shaw understands well that most companies already use the team concept as a way of organizing and motivating their employees. He is looking for companies that carry the team notion much farther, in the direction of the nurturing and enforcement of unusual and “extreme” aspects of corporate culture. Employees of Patagonia, the outdoor-wear manufacturer, are taught to believe in product quality at all costs and to reject corporate growth for growth’s sake. Retail teams at Whole Foods are empowered to modify the grocery chain’s standard operations to suit their local environment – by opening an in-store wine bar in California’s wine country, for example. Netflix maintains a “hard” corporate culture in its teams by constantly evaluating its employees’ performance. “Adequate performance in Netflix results in a generous severance package,” the company says. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
No matter what the corporate culture may be, Shaw writes, successful companies that deploy “extreme teams” have much in common. Where a typical company might have teams whose “members get along well but don’t have the drive or toughness needed to deliver results,” a “superior” or “extreme” company will use teams whose members “work as a cohesive group to deliver extraordinary results.” It’s not the nature of the corporate culture that makes the team “extreme.” Netflix is notorious for its cutthroat ways and dedication to profit, while one of Patagonia’s top two priorities is to preserve the natural environment. No matter; they’re both in the “extreme” camp because of their devotion to their principles, their energy and their creativity.
Shaw doesn’t touch on law firms in this book, but legal marketers need to ask the question: How can law firms apply these principles effectively? A law firm that wishes to apply the lessons from Shaw’s book must first identify its core values that differentiate it from other law firms. Is it dedicated to client service at all costs? Does it try to hire the very best lawyers and promote a cutthroat employee culture? Is the firm’s commitment to public service and to the needs of its community paramount? Does the firm value a nimble response to specific local demands, like the admirable work of the Whole Foods employees who opened a wine bar in the store?
Once a law firm has defined its culture, the hard work will really begin. Is the firm really prepared to build client-service teams that are empowered to innovate, that are composed of attorneys at all career levels as well as financial, technical, management and marketing staff, and that have the full backing of the firm’s management?
My sense is that some or all of these objectives and possibilities are in the category of wishes and dreams at this point. Law firms are conservative institutions that are not known for innovation or “extreme” behavior. But the first law firm that can put this team concept all together, whether by the concentrated use of budgeting and project management or some other team concept that is only now taking root, will make headlines and will make a lot of money.
By Jonathan Groner, Freelance Writer and Public Relations Consultant