How to reward the clown.

Actually, I didn’t want to write about my book "Mittelmaß und Wahnsinn" (Mediocrity and Madness) again today. But then I came across this article on SPIEGEL Online ("Erfolgreiche Teamarbeit - Diesen Typ braucht jede Gruppe")  and I ended up regretting that I hadn't found this gem before.

(Future) Martians

NASA plans to send a team of spacers to Mars by 2033. This is of course a huge engineering feat. Yet, the human element might be the even bigger factor. The team will have to live together a minimum of three years, confined to the narrowest of spaces, by day and by night, in good times as in bad. In order to cope with that challenge, NASA not only researches spacecraft but also human psychology and team dynamics.

At the AAAS conference in Washington they presented a deeply interesting insight. Of all the different roles people can assume in teams, teams operating in the most difficult of conditions with the most ambitious of challenges, one role stands out, making the biggest difference between success and failure. No, it is not the leader’s role. It’s the “clown’s”, the storyteller’s, the comedian’s. He or she is the one to bring together different parties, to unite them under a common narrative, to diffuse tensions when (no question of if) they arise. To come to that conclusion, the researchers tapped into historic examples like Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole and observed teams under simulated conditions at Johnson Space Centre in Huston.

Pivotal clowns

Their more general conclusion: it’s the informal roles that determine success or failure … and the clown’s is the most important one! Which – finally – brings us to a question, I raised (a bit differently) in the book: how would you pay the clown? – or a bit more general again: how would you assess the clown’s performance?

Think about the most (potentially) prominent roles on Amundsen’s team for example.

The leader, of course. He bore all the responsibility, had to make all the tough decisions, supposedly motivated his men in the most dire of times. Or the man (only men at these times and this line of business) who pulled (or pushed) the sledge the biggest distance (yes, the used dogs, too). He obviously bore the biggest workload, surpassed his mates by level of exhaustion, covered the biggest part of the track, literally walked the extra mile. Or the doctor. Highly educated, he saved limbs and lives.


"He has rendered greater and more valuable service to the Norwegian polar expeditions than any other man"

Roald Amundsen


But what about the cook? The cook that proved to be the clown in Amundsen’s party. The cook of whom Amundsen later said that he had the pivotal role in making the expedition succeed. Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm. Well, by culinary standards, the cook was most probably not a huge over-achiever. And we have to admit that it might be difficult for any chef to create haute cuisine with the supplies and means of an Antarctic expedition. Thus, in his formal capacity, the cook should probably be rated average at best.

Wrong forces

In order to make things a bit more “corporate”, add a pinch of forced distribution to the task: for any over-achiever, there has to be a corresponding under-achiever. With the leader, the sledge-pusher and the doctor on the 100%-plus side, the cook is the obvious victim. 80% sounds good enough for a cook, doesn’t it? And in case he would leave upon such a performance assessment, replacing a cook shouldn’t be much of a problem at all.

80% (or less in case you are in need for tradeoffs) for the pivotal person making the difference between team success and team failure!

I have my opinion about performance assessments and rewards and you can find it in the book. You do not necessarily have to follow these considerations of mine. The only thing I would truly encourage you to think about is the question: Who is that clown/cook on your team? Is it an assistant? Is it the working student? A subject matter expert? That person in the PMO? … United we stand, divided we fall.

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