What is a “Team of rivals”? How can a team of people, supposedly opposed to each other, arrive at any outcomes over a period of time which are consistent and persistent and aligned to the goal of the organisation?

Surely we need consensus to get consistency?

Surely, if we have people who are either politically or intellectually opposed, we will get solutions which are a result of ad-hoc shifting of allegiances over time?

Forming a team of rivals does have the inherent risks of inconsistency borne of deal making. However, from my experience, it can be the most powerful approach to resolving apparently intractable problems.

A team of rivals is not a business-as-usual solution. It is a solution which should be tried only when make-or-break criteria are met.

Common defined goal

The goal or the problem to be solved must be clearly defined and understood commonly amongst the proposed team. It is not sufficient for the individuals involved to think they have a common goal, they must know that they do.

A team of rivals means that individuals will have different perspectives, even if they are purely personal rather than professional differences. Spend some time making sure each and every individual is locked in on the goal and what it means from a range of perspectives. For example, short term versus long term, customers versus shareholders versus employees, health and safety versus entrepreneurial spirit.

If the goal is not unequivocally shared amongst the team of rivals, then do not go down the path of creating such a team. That does not mean that below the singular goal there is not a difference of opinion on how to achieve the goal and what the sub-objectives are. That is what you want when creating a team of rivals; one goal and many ideas on how to get there.

Most often, a team of rivals is beneficial when the goal itself seems to be a dilemma. For example, how to ensure we do not trigger risk events that could cause global warming at a level which endangers life on the planet and ensure that people are able to retain or regain jobs in the aftermath of the financial crisis?

Diversity of thinking style

The people proposed must have as wide a diversity in thinking style as possible. The team, as a whole, must be comfortable in thinking which covers the span of styles:

  • Holistic, intuitive, integrating and synthesising
  • Interpersonal, feeling-based, kinaesthetic and emotional
  • Organised, sequential, planned and detailed
  • Logical, analytical, fact based and quantitative.


Individuals need only be able to think in one or two styles. The team must be capable of thinking in all styles. Team members must be able to respect the different thinking styles of other individuals and value the difference they bring to the team. Note: While it is not uncommon to have intelligent, experienced people who can think in all four styles, they usually have a preference for one or two thinking styles under pressure.

Mastery of topic or role

Each team member must bring mastery of a topic or a role.

Consider a team tackling the problem of the future of a plant which supports more than fifty percent of a local community and which suffers high levels of industrial relations disputes and is on the brink of closure. In that team, one person may bring mastery of industrial relations law, another may bring mastery of worker relationships and contacts, yet another community contacts and public relations and yet another plant productivity and operation. Yet they may be missing one more member; someone who masters the role of facilitator.

In a team of rivals, as well as subject matter experts you may well need people who can master the role of facilitator, devil’s advocate or innovator.

Emotionally intelligent people

Allowing thought processes to be hijacked by emotions is a sure way of leaving difficult problems unresolved.

Wanting to create a team of rivals means that you have one or more intractable problems to solve. Deliberately placing a diverse competitive group together will create tension. After all, tension is what you want. What you do not want is for people to unconsciously allow their emotions to control their actions. Conscious use of emotion may work. Unconscious submission to emotional impulses is guaranteed to not work.

Being emotionally intelligent is simple to understand. You want people who are self aware, are able to self regulate, can motivate themselves and others, can empathise (not sympathise) and have developed social skills.

However, it may be a little harder to find people who have strengths across all five dimensions of emotional intelligence than it is to define. In that case, settle for people who are self aware, can reasonably self regulate and have social skills. As long as one person can empathise and another can motivate, the team will work.

Time limit

To create tension, or mostly through necessity, a time limit to come up with a solution helps more often than it hinders the process for a team of rivals. Open ended time-lines risk them indulging in their rivalry for the intellectual enjoyment and increasing their sense of self.


Teams of rivals work very well or very badly. There is usually nothing much in between. Choose to use a team of rivals when you need to because of the urgency of doing something better and when you have a group of individuals at your disposal who are emotionally intelligent with diverse thinking styles and are masters of a topic or a role. Oh, and share a clearly defined goal.