The Magic of Autotelic Teams!

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posted by Dilip on December 1, 2020

Autotelic: adjective: Having a purpose, motivation, or meaning in itself; not driven by external factors.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum-up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders for them to complete each task. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince.

One of my clients called me to set up a mock interview session before he was to face his potential hiring manager. As a VP of engineering, this hiring manager was concerned about declining team morale and low productivity of their engineering team. My client was going after a director-level job to head an engineering team of 30-some people under the VP, who wanted to make sure that the next leader of this floundering team would bring the right skills to drive the team to excel.

In the first round of my client’s interview with the recruiter my client did well and when the recruiter set up the next round with the VP, he wanted to make sure that my client was well prepared to respond to some of the questions that would come up during this critical interview. So, the recruiter was kind enough to send him a few questions to my client so that he would come prepared to respond to them to ace the interview. Here is a partial list of those questions which my client wanted me to go through during our mock session to get him interview ready:

  • How do you motivate your team?
  • What is the best way to scale a team when hiring top talent is getting increasingly difficult?
  • How would you ensure diversity in your team and how would you convince the CEO of its importance?

The purpose of this blog is to disabuse some notions many interviewing candidates have about what the “right” responses are for such questions, which are now becoming more and more frequent for executive-level interviews.

Team Motivation: When a leader has to motivate their team, something is already wrong. Instead, an inspired team is self-motivated. A leader’s role is to show their team how to play the Infinite game. This concept of the Infinite game was first suggested by Simon Sinek in one of his recent talks. Here, Sinek distinguishes this from the game everyone plays in their pursuit to beat others—a Finite game—from its counterpart, the Infinite game, where you are competing with yourself on a purposeful mission.

In a Finite game you are focused on what the competition is doing and finding ways to up that game. This tussle is limited by what the competition can do and to find ways to outdo them. Playing the Infinite game, on the other hand, is driven by your own purposeful commitment to the mission at hand and tapping deep into your abilities to complete that mission. Here, you are driven by your own vision of the end point—telos—and you do not need an external agency to motivate you.

Any motivation derived from an external agency has a limited shelf life; you must find new ways to motivate your team as the team members seek external cues to propel their efforts to the end point. They also look for constant affirmation from a higher authority or even from among their peers. Although there is nothing wrong if a leader recognizes a team member’s outstanding contribution or selfless effort to propel the team to success, the degree to which this needs to happen and how the team members expect this as an ongoing tonic for their efforts just to keep things on track can greatly limit the team’s autonomous ability to stay focused on its mission and to deliver on it without drama. If the team needs this tonic just for it to get through each day, then when it stops for reasons that the team cannot control, it suddenly feels bereft of this vital element and slips into dysfunction.

So, what is a manager’s role in keeping their team inspired to do its best and to become self-driving? Here’s a partial checklist:

  1. Make sure that each team knows the greater purpose of its mission and how it impacts someone that matters to them individually and collectively (see the quote at the top of the blog by Antoine de Saint-Exupery).
  2. Let the team come back with its response to the challenge you, as its leader, gave them that defines what the team needs to deliver, when, and how.
  3. Review the team’s response to your challenge and provide even bigger goals to further make that challenge stretch the team’s capabilities so that the challenge itself becomes a great driving force for the team to excel.
  4. Provide the resources to take the drudgery out of the myriad tasks each team member does: automate routine tasks and provide up-to-date tools and capabilities so that each team member can focus on creative tasks rather than responding to customer complaints (technical debt) and broken products stemming from previous products’ premature releases.
  5. Manage by exception rather than micromanaging and interfering with the team’s workflow. Set up clear accountabilities so that you, as their leader, know when to check on things and catch things before they get off-track.

These are all simple, commonsense rules of leadership but nearly 80% of the managers fail to understand or operationalize them, resulting in their teams performing suboptimally.

Growing and Scaling Teams: Most managers do not understand the difference between growing teams and scaling teams. Growing a team entails adding mere headcount by recruiting more team members. The irony here is that as a team grows beyond a certain size (5-6) entropy creeps in and teams become progressively less efficient. The term entropy comes from Thermodynamics and represents the degree of disorder in a system. Often, as the headcount in a team grows, the synergies disappear, and a manager has to spend more and more time intercepting the creeping entropy. This is no way to grow a team.

Scaling a team, on the other hand, entails making a team highly productive. This can be done by having the right mix of rock stars, superstars, and motivated team members who want to grow to become rock stars. If a manager is prescient enough to organize such a team with tight membership and provide all the resources required for it to perform well (see #4 from Team Motivation section above) then you are scaling a team.

Such a team exhibits great synergy by how its different team members work together to create an outcome greater than the mere sum of its talents. Now you have fewer members in a team doing highly synergistic work and the team’s productivity rockets up without their manager having to provide constant supervision, as they might when they are merely focused on growing their team. A scalable team is very cohesive and suffers far less attrition among its members than would a team that is merely growing pell-mell. Having autonomous teams also frees-up their manager to do the management work that only they can do. Traditionally, such work gets ignored or deferred, often creating management and technical debt.

Diversity and Inclusion: Recently, there is great deal of focus on how to make teams diverse. Diverse teams that are inclusive are good examples of workplace units that create harmonious work environment. So, many companies are now finding ways to make this a sine qua non for how teams must be organized and formed. Of course, diversity in a team can be a noble pursuit, but much like equal opportunity, it is somewhat an elusive concept. Diversity is not a monolithic idea; it is somewhat in the eyes of the beholder!


There are so many facets to a team’s diversity: gendered, cultural, national, educational, racial, cognitive, age-based, to name just a few. Hiring someone on the basis of any one of these can be in conflict of hiring laws, especially in the U.S. In a team what becomes more apparent is what is openly visible. For example, it is easy to see a team having gender equality or racial balance because many age and racial identities are visually apparent. But how do you recruit for factors that cannot be explored in a job interview because asking such questions can constitute illegal practices. How does one go after a transgender ethnic person of a certain nationality that is above a certain age group?

The answer to this dilemma is to stay focused on the team’s mission and to focus on what makes an effective team. Studies have shown that of the diversity factors cognitive diversity has the most impact on how an effective team functions. It is easier to screen for cognitive diversity among different candidates by looking at their résumés and educational background.

For example, for a designer role not only would you hire someone from science and engineering background, but you would also consider someone who has come from liberal arts and political science stream. Their résumé can further show how their career has evolved to make an assessment of their cognitive diversity. Studies have shown that cognitive diversity in a team contributes with a far great weight for team’s effectiveness than almost any other single factor. It is much easier to screen for such factors than some arbitrary factors of diversity in screening potential candidates. Having stated this in the final selection, all things being equal, a candidate that brings a greater degree of overall diversity to the team is perhaps a better choice. 

For all other factors of diversity, you want to hire a candidate that meets the job requirements and then decide on how the dimensions they bring enriches the team’s diversity of views. The focus must always be on team performance and not just on diversity.

The ideas in this blog are not meant to give you ready answers to such complex interview explorations but are presented to provide a broader perspective for a more studied response.

Good luck!