The Secret to Keeping Smart Teams from Failing

Many teams, and especially teams loaded with smart and highly educated people, fail because management and team members do not understand the fundamental differences in communication styles among employees.

I learned this lesson up close and personal, working with research and development (R&D) teams in the Aerospace industry. The head of R&D was frustrated with the little progress his teams were making with new product development. The stakes were high. If the R&D teams missed their product release dates, the company’s profitable growth would tank, and worse, the company might lose key customers to competitors.

The assessment of my organizational development team was the inability of R&D team members to communicate effectively with each other and constructively raise and resolve conflict.

These teams had members from all the various functions required to collaborate on new product development. The members were among the best and the brightest: technical experts, scientists, and functional process experts. Managers and team members failed to understand how the internal makeup of people dictates how they communicate and accept ideas from one another. If differences are not bridged, teams get stuck in bitter arguments, and consequently miss deadlines.

Our solution was to administer a communications style assessment with each team member and then discuss the results and solution strategies as a team. These assessments were not personality tests, which are developed for a different purpose. Instead, they identify communication styles and provide guidance on how to mitigate misunderstanding and conflict with “bridging strategies.”  It worked like a charm.

There are several types of communication style assessments, such as the Skill Deployment Inventory (SDI) and DISC. Deloitte has come up with a new assessment, called Business Chemistry. All of these assessments identify four basic communication styles and do a great job of conveying the differences between them. My own preference is SDI, because it also shows how communication styles can change under stress.

In SDI, the four basic communication styles are represented by colors:

  • Reds are drivers. These individuals are all about performance and getting the job done on time. They have little regard for the number of body bags left in their wake as they achieve their goals. Many middle managers have this style.
  • Greens are about getting the information 100% correct. They focus on process, are very analytical, and love to understand the history of a topic. They will not move forward with a recommendation until they fully understand an issue. As you may guess, they are often engineers and scientists.
  • Blues are amiable. Their motivation centers on how issues impact people. They are great compromisers and have an interest in satisfying individual goals. They are wonderful facilitators and make good leaders.
  • Rainbows move from each of the above styles, as appropriate, to achieve results. They are often sales people. CEOs are also often rainbows because they need to build relationships outside and across the company, as well as develop a shared, long-term vision and operating mechanisms.

Styles can change when a team member is under stress. For example, reds can slow down in the face of failure and become very analytical (green) to understand why the implementation plan is falling behind. Other reds may default to amiable (blue) to understand why no one is following their lead.

Communication assessments teach team member about his or her own style, to honor the style of others, and how to bridge common communication gaps. For example, if an amiable team member wanted to persuade a red project manager that her plan would fail because it would overwork and exhaust the team, the amiable would learn to identify the impact on the timeline (always a red flag for reds!) as well as the requirement for additional resources, rather than focus on the negative impact on team members.

In addition to communication style assessments, new product teams also improve when they have absolute clarity of the business strategy, the team’s goal, the role of each team member, and the team’s operating norms. One of the norms should be equal participation by every team member. Digital technology also improves team effectiveness, providing easy access to commonly needed documents on shared drives, as well as the use of videoconferencing, in the case of virtual teams.

My staff has also had great success using SDI with hard charging sales reps, when the company’s strategy switched from individual sales (which required persistence) to team sales (which required collaboration). The use of SDI dramatically improved the collaboration of the newly formed sales teams!

Are you using communication style assessments for your business teams? What have been the results? I would love to hear from you.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults on innovation, talent management, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Questions? Please e-mail Victor at or visit www.victorhrconsultant.comFor innovation visit



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