The Avengers: A fun case study of high-performing teams
The Avengers, sure to be one of the biggest blockbuster films this summer, was a move with a lot to like. It was exciting, funny, stunning, and inspiring. The basic plot is this: faced with the potential subjugation of earth by powerful galactic gods, Nick Fury – director of S.H.I.E.L.D…basically an agency 10x more awesome than the CIA – brings together 6 of history’s most remarkable heroes to save the planet. The implementation of “The Avengers Initiative”, once abandoned by S.H.I.E.L.D. because it would’ve brought together “forces which cannot be controlled”, is the focal point of this super sweet movie. It’s also a surprisingly good case study about high-performing teams.
These heroes – Captain American (Cap), Iron Man, The Hulk, Black Widow, Thor and Hawkeye – must put aside their differences to literally save the world. Here are some examples of why The Avengers are a high performing team and some observations about their fellowship. Do you have any more to add, or criticisms of their teaming?:
(Spoiler Alert - If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading now!)
They had a crystal clear purpose
The Avengers come together to save the world by preventing the tesseract (a source of limitless energy) from being used to open a portal to another galaxy. Very little is clearer than that (saving the world is a pretty clear and simple purpose), I think.
They had diverse strengths
The team has very different strengths, capabilities and styles. Iron Man is a brilliant inventor and The Hulk is very good at smashing things. Cap is a super human with deep convictions. Black Widow and Hawkeye are elite S.H.I.E.L.D. spies. Thor is a demi-god who controls thunder. I’d say this is a very well rounded crew.
They articulated their roles clearly, together
The Avengers all knew what their role in the plan was, even if it took them a bit of time to get there. Bruce Banner (Hulk’s human form) had to find the tesseract. Thor had to control Loki. Cap was playing the role of military field general (he is a Captain, after all). Also, all these players adapted their roles, together, on the fly, to deal with whatever situation emerged.
They were onboarded well
Each Avenger was onboarded well. By the time they arrived they were well versed in the mission and ready to rock. This helped them start working together very quickly.
They had the freedom to operate outside the bounds of a chain of command
To do something nobody has ever attempted seems difficult to do within existing organizational boundaries. Nick Fury seemed to recognize this. He resisted the S.H.I.E.L.D. Council’s requests to abort the Avenger Initiative and behave as they directed. He knew this was bound to fail so he provided political cover to the Avengers to operate outside of protocol and a chain of command. This allowed them to move fast and fiercely, as the situation required.
I think this is pretty applicable to organizations, generally. Most organizations that I am a part of succumb to this as well. Nothing that pushes edges gets done within traditional organizational hierarchy. Maybe our organizations should allow for some Avengers every once in awhile!
Trust was hard to come by
Trust was hard earned in this team. It basically took the murder of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson to bring the team together to put aside their differences. It also took honesty on the part of Nick Fury to reveal S.H.I.E.L.D.’s true intentions for the tesseract. This goes to show that even remarkable people need time to develop trust and that trust is really important for teams to be effective.
Individual collective agendas were aligned / incentives
The Avengers each had a personal agenda as well a collective one...and all of these agendas were (luckily) aligned. For example, Black Widow wanted to settle a debt with Hawkeye and Hawkeye wanted to get even with Loki for controlling him. Cap was searching for meaning after being frozen for several decades. The Hulk wanted freedom (I think) and Iron Man probably wanted some ego-boost. All of their individual desires, in any case, were aligned with the rewards of collective success(the reward of collective success was saving the world).
This alignment of agendas (and in turn rewards and incentives) obviously helped the Avengers prevent their individual differences from being an obstacle to collective success. Having aligned agendas probably wasn’t a deliberate observation by Nick Fury when putting the Avengers together, but it was convenient.
They had the tools / equipment / resources they needed
The Avengers couldn’t battle without weapons and armor. Same with teams – they need the right equipment and resources to succeed. The Avengers had all this.
A formal leader is noticeably absent
Something interesting, I thought, was that there wasn’t really a designated “leader” among the Avengers. It’s like they led themselves without a coordinating authority. They all had the right roles and they executed effectively because they were committed to the mission. That’s pretty cool.
Right as the action started to intensify in the film, Nick Fury said something about why the Avengers were brought together: “There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, so when we needed them, they could fight the battles that we never could…”
This quote is the one element of the movie that I vehemently disagree with. We don’t need remarkable people in teams. In fact, I don’t think we can rely on remarkable people to make up high performing teams. Rather, we should create organizations that take ordinary people and make them into remarkable teams. I have faith that we can make this sort of institutional transformation happen, and we must.