Yesterday, Adrian Hon posted a comment in a MetaFilter thread about brainstorming that has me thinking about what makes a great team work so well. Adrian's experience is similar to mine -- at least in part because we've worked on some great teams together. But I've worked with other smooth, almost effortless teams, too, and after some reflection, I think there are four fundamental components required for everything to mesh in just that perfect way.
Communication. On a truly great team, everyone is up front about what they're expecting, and about what they're producing. There is no unspoken culture of mind-reading, no witholding of crucial information. If your official deadline is Thursday but you're hoping to get something in on Wednesday, you just say it instead of hinting. If you're sending in a draft but you know your best work isn't in it, say that, too. If the client comes back with feedback, everyone is copied on the email. Communication is constant and thorough.
Trust. Every team member needs to be able to trust the others. This is partly a matter of reliability -- trusting that everyone else will put in the hours, deliver on time, bring their A game. On the deepest lizard-brain level, everyone has to trust that everyone else is working to create the best outcome possible for the project. Not, most emphatically not, just in it for the best outcome for the individual. There is no room for office politics on a great creative team.
Constructive disagreement. On a good team, if your idea is crap, your teammates will let you know. Nobody is taking it personally; it's not you, it's the work. The faster you can kill the not-quite ideas and deconstruct why they didn't work, the faster the good ones will rise to the top. But at the same time, nobody pulls ideas down as petty retaliation. (One of the very best parts of the Balance of Powers team is our ability to argue productively about even very minor story elements, nearly always resulting in a stronger whole.)
The X Factor. All of the above are necessary for a good, functional team. If you don't have those ingredients in your mix, your team won't just fall short of expectations in its creative output -- it'll be downright dysfunctional. But there is also a certain element of chemistry that can rocket a team from merely good to legendary. It can take the shape of complementary skills, a shared creative vision, empathy, all adding up to a team that is very much greater than the people who make it up.
Now, you may notice that all of these factors also go into making other great relationships, too, from friendship to marriage. That's no accident. And as with a great friendship (or romance!) when you find yourself on a truly exceptional creative team, make the most of it. Any team can be a good team with enough effort, but the really great ones don't come along every day.