Originally published on Forbes.com.
Starting a new collaboration can be exciting. You look forward to getting to know the new person and explore the possibility of doing great work together. But there are many risks to navigate. Will the two of you get along? Are you bringing complementary skills to the table? Do you see eye-to-eye on the important issues? Will you build on each other to come up with better ideas together than you would have apart? Once these questions are answered in the affirmative and a collaborative relationship is underway, then the question becomes: how do you sustain the relationship? The question of sustaining the right team, as opposed to forming the right team, is important because by keeping the team in place you save on the start up costs and risks associated with putting a new one together. And you can capitalize on the trust and certainty that you build over time.
But what bring people together is not necessarily what keeps them together, according to a recent study in The Administrative Science Quarterly by professors Linus Dahlander of the ESMT European School of Management and Technology and Daniel McFarland of Stanford University. Using data from research collaborations by Stanford University’s faculty over the course of 15 years, they tackled the question of what sustains teams. They found that the deeper and more multifaceted the relationship between collaborators, the more likely they are to keep working together. A surprising finding was that success, as measured by how often the work was cited by others, did not have the same effect.
Why would people keep working together even when the results don’t justify it? “Because,” the authors of the study write, “people tend to stick to the ties they have formed, for better or worse, especially stronger ties that are multiplex and span multiple types of associations.” That’s why off-site team building retreats and ropes courses are more effective than networking mixers for strengthening a team. They lead to a deeper knowledge of the other person – how they respond under stress, what they care about, what their sense of humor is like. This greater knowledge comes in useful when, as a work team, you need to deal with an uncertain situation. And the camaraderie becomes a glue that holds the team together when times get difficult.
The flip side of this finding is that a good outcome does not guarantee repeat collaborations if the relationship suffers along the way. This can happen if you’re working so many hours with someone that you feel that you need a break from them when you are not at work. Over time, your interaction becomes work-only, and the interpersonal connection is weaker. The longer you are successful together, the more you can grow apart as friends.
My research about rock bands as creative teams suggests that many rock bands decline once they are successful for the same reasons.People don’t realize that success can strains relationships. Early on in a band’s career, the members go through extremely difficult situations together – the equivalent of corporate outdoor wilderness retreats. They cram themselves into small vans, sleep on top of the speakers or on dirty floors, and subsist on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Grueling tours is the band equivalent of “sweat equity,” the unpaid mental and physical hard work that entrepreneurs put into their nascent businesses. Sweat equity is a particularly powerful sources of commitment when the team is starting out because it cannot be justified in terms of the money gained by the work, since there is none.
Take Guns N’ Roses. In June 1985, the newly formed band took a disastrous road trip from Los Angeles to Seattle. Their car broke down in the middle of the night. They had only thirty-seven dollars between them, but they decided to get to Seattle anyway. They walked and hitchhiked a thousand miles, eating raw onions they picked from a field, and relied on the generosity (and, considering how they looked, the courage) of complete strangers. They had only 15 people come to the show and they were paid a mere $100 of the promised $150. But Guns N’ Roses’ first “tour” was not a failure. As Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan wrote in his memoir, It’s So Easy: (and Other Lies), his band’s ill-fated first tour made clear to him that “Guns N’ Roses was no longer a band, but the band—our band.” Consequently, he was willing to suffer through poverty and homelessness in the months leading up to the making of Appetite for Destruction.
Then Appetite for Destruction became the highest selling debut album to date and Guns N’ Roses became the biggest band in the world. The band began to grow apart. In his memoir, Duff McKagan wrote about the disastrous Chicago residency during which they began working on the follow-up to Appetite. Singer Axl Rose arrived two-weeks late, got into a fight with a girl they had befriended, and trashed their apartment. Guitarist Izzy Stradlin arrived fresh from rehab, saw the mess, and left, effectively checking out of the creative process. Drummer Steven Adler started complaining about Rose to the other band members. “The harsh reality was that the old us-against-the-world mentality had waned,” McKagan wrote. By the time of their next tour, Adler had been replaced and the rest of the band members barely spoke or saw one another except on stage. Today, of the original Guns N’ Roses lineup, only Axl Rose remains.
Ironically, whereas failure and disaster strengthened the nascent Guns N’ Roses, success ultimately destroyed it. Success is what all teams wish for. But are they prepared for its hazards? As we know from the unpleasant separations of most entrepreneurial founding teams, the answer is usually No.
McKagan’s book It’s So Easy: (and Other Lies) is currently being made into a full-length documentary feature film. Watch the trailer here.