So Much Synergy, It’s Criminal: What Hollywood Heists Can Teach Us About Teamwork

For many, synergy has become a dirty word.

This loaded business term started appearing around the ‘60s, and supervisors and CEOs alike have been overusing it ever since. Most of us have to stifle a groan when we walk into a conference room and see the word displayed on a whiteboard or a screen. We’ve watched leaders pound the pulpit on teamwork and collaboration, and we’ve all done the “trust fall” exercise. Whether or not these tired tactics have worked, they’ve certainly proved tedious.

A big part of the problem is boredom. Most of us don’t find much excitement in our daily work, so it can be hard to get pumped about coming to the office each day and collaborating with our coworkers. With the right frame of reference, though, boredom can be a thing of the past, and we can all become a little more engaged and cooperative at work.

Sports teams are usually the metaphor of choice when discussing effective teams, but underdog sports stories aren’t always reflective of our experience in business. A more accurate analogy would be heist stories. Films like The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, and Inception are perfect examples of the genre, and they can teach us a lot about how to build, and how to run, an effective team.

The Score

It all starts with the score, and this is what differentiates Ocean’s Eleven from Remember the Titans. In sports, especially at the high school or college level, players play primarily for the love of the game. That’s not typically the case in heist films. While there may be the odd duck who gets a thrill from taking something that’s not theirs, the rest of the team is in it for one reason: “Money, dear boy.”

Similarly, in business we’re all trying to earn a living. The key here is that we’re all doing something to make money, whether it’s designing shoes, providing a B2B software solution, or making movies. Everyone in the company, from the boss to the janitor, is doing something that either makes progress towards that goal or helps facilitate it.

Having a unified purpose is the foundation of an effective team; everyone needs to have the same objectives and if they don’t, the team is in trouble. Take the traitor, for instance. In heist movies, there’s often a member of the team who wants to turn on everyone else. Their objective is different: maybe they want to take all the money for themselves or they plan to turn everyone in to the cops. Their goal isn’t the same as everyone else’s, so they do things that sabotage, hinder, or stall the team’s efforts.

Business works the same way, with braggarts, glory hogs, and megalomaniacs performing in ways that are counterproductive to team success. Members of the team who want to be paid without doing any work or who seek to undermine their coworkers are toxic, and they weigh everyone down.

If you want to go after the big score, you need team members who trust one another, share burdens and credit, and plan to take a fair cut.

The Team

Speaking of teams, you’ll need to build one. In heist films, each team member has a unique role to fill, and thus needs special skills: the acrobat who climbs through the air ducts, the hacker who gets into the mark’s computer systems, the getaway driver who will speed the team away from the scene of the crime, and so forth. Everyone has a different job to do, and those people are chosen because of their specialized skills. Business requires a similar division of responsibilities. Teams vary in size, but their success always depends on amassing the talents needed to do the job.

Heist teams also tend to have a previous history of working together successfully. They usually like each other, and they get along well. They’re willing to help out where they’re needed. In the event that they don’t get along for one reason or another, it creates counterproductive tension that usually has to be overcome for the team to succeed.

Likewise, leaders who want to build effective teams will have to make sure their team members get along. When hiring new members, try to assess their personalities and whether they would fit in well with the group. Work with members who don’t seem to fit in (or don’t get along with other people on the team) so that things work as smoothly as possible.

The Plan

One of the most crucial scenes in a heist movie is the planning scene. This is where the team sets up just how it’s all going to get done, who’s going to do what, and when things will be set into motion. All the gear, tools, and resources the team will need is established at this point. Potential problems and complications are outlined, and plans are made to handle each one. Almost every detail is accounted for before any work begins.

Similar plans are needed in business. Responsibilities need to be delineated, deadlines established, and necessary resources identified and allocated. This isn’t something that the boss can do alone and expect everyone to follow; team members need to give their input so that they don’t end up with too little time or without the help they need. And if you really want to create team synergy, you need to make sure everyone is clear on who’s responsible for what. That way, Suzy knows to go to Allen for the reports she needs, and Brad knows that he doesn’t have to submit that invoice because Mike is taking care of it.

The Leader

While we can’t all be as charismatic as George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven, we can still learn some things from his leadership style. First of all, heist leaders don’t micromanage. They trust their team members to get their assigned tasks done on time, and to let the leader know if any problems arise. Second, heist leaders give the team the resources they need to do their jobs well. Third, the leader mediates disputes so that if some members of the team aren’t playing together well, their squabbles don’t put the whole team at risk.

The Complications

No matter how well the team is organized or how carefully the plan is laid, there will be complications. That’s unavoidable. What’s left up to the team is how those complications are handled, and it makes or breaks the heist every time. If you want your team to achieve success, you need to prepare them for complications and help them roll with the punches. Teams that see their leaders as understanding of setbacks will be more encouraged to try again if they aren’t successful the first time around.

No team is perfect, and the heist is never easy. But with a little imagination and a little cooperation, any team can accomplish their goals.

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About the Author

CMOE

CMOE’s Design Team is comprised of individuals with diverse and complementary strengths, talents, education, and experience who have come together to bring a unique service to CMOE’s clients. Our team has a rich depth of knowledge, holding advanced degrees in areas such as business management, psychology, communication, human resource management, organizational development, and sociology.