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Lessons from the SNL Writers Room: How to Build an Effective Team

I recently saw a hilarious video clip from the third season of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Producer Lorne Michaels asks the Beatles (all still living at the time) to reunite and perform on the show…

…for $3,200, a laughably small sum, even in 1977 dollars.

It made me wonder how SNL and Michaels did it. How are they still going strong 42 years later?

At SNL, the cast and writers room is comprised of ambitious individualists, all with different agendas, all competing for the spotlight. Some of them are temperamental and hard to manage. That seems like a recipe for disaster.

It reminds me of city councils and boards after an election. Politicians are independent of their Board and its leader, rely on their own supporters and constituencies to maintain their position, and recognize themselves as leaders in their own right. Like entertainers, they consider themselves (or at least strive to be) the lead attraction.

I’ve seen conflict and ambition create dysfunction in city government. Often though, I’ve seen it work.

As I pondered SNL’s success, I discovered that SNL succeeds for the same reasons that functional boards work.

How? By fostering a “safe” environment for all to participate productively and constructively.

Business author Charles Duhigg (“The Power of Habit” and “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business”) has studied SNL’s success and credits Michaels:

“Lorne Michaels has this very unique way of running meetings. He sits down and the meeting starts. And what he’ll do is he’ll make everyone go around the table and say something. And if someone hasn’t spoken up in a little while Loren Michaels will actually stop the meeting and he’ll say Susie, I notice that you haven’t chimed in. Like what are you thinking about right now? And if somebody looks upset, if an actor looks like he’s having a bad day or a writer sort of sees like they’re pissed off Lorne Michaels will again stop the meeting and he’ll actually take that person out of the room and he’ll say look, it looks like something’s going on that’s bugging you. Like let’s talk about it. What’s happening in your life?”

This is not just touchy-feely Kumbaya stuff for whacky comedians. This reflects best business practices.

Duhigg’s quote comes from a video called “What Makes a Winning Team? SNL and Google Have the Formula.”

Duhigg tells us that Google began a massive research project in 2011 to understand how to build high-functioning teams.

They began with the premise that teams function best when you put the right people together.

But after years of study, “(Google) couldn’t find any correlation between who was on a team and whether that team was effective or not,” according to Duhigg.

So Google began to explore how teams interact. Google’s study revealed that, “Teams in which people all speak up and where there’s high social sensitivity where people pick up on each other’s nonverbal cues, those according to the data are the most effective teams.”

Google spent millions of dollars and collected reams of data to figure this out. By the time Google completed its study, Lorne Michaels had been running teams at SNL this way for decades.

I’ve served as a Mayor who runs a city council and as a consultant working with councils.

I, too, learned over the years that “psychological safety” is the single greatest contributor to a group’s success. A safe environment fosters a sense of togetherness that encourages members to speak up. Everyone participates about the same amount and fellow team members actively listen. By welcoming new ideas, the team becomes more innovative and collaborative.

When a group of individuals learn to interact in a more effective way, they develop a collective intelligence and achieve more than a team of individual superstars.

But this doesn’t happen accidentally. This happens when a strong leader, like Lorne Michaels, controls how team members interact.

A leader sets the stage, acts as the example, provides resources and breaks down obstacles. Then we get out of the way and let the team succeed.

In addition to “psychological safety,” Google’s study, cited four other keys to success to help your team become as cohesive, collaborative, and high performing as Saturday Night Live.

I’ve summarized those factors here.

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