Three perfect examples from the Atlassian Summit of how embracing diversity and conflict changed human history

Team – Mike Cannon-Brookes, far right, watches his Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar on stage. Picture: Peter Farquhar
  • Atlassian kicks off annual summit in Barcelona with keynote discussion about teams.
  • Diversity and conflict have resulted in some of the greatest innovations.
  • Business Insider is in Barcelona as a guest of Atlassian.

Atlassian’s annual developer conference, Summit, is under way in Barcelona.

We’re there as guests of what has become Australia’s greatest startup success story, and still pulling away from the pack.

Atlassian, the enterprise software company started by Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar in 2002, has had a good year: it’s now valued at around the $20 billion mark, and Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes, 38, both have a third share each in that.

It’s the kind of success most people dream of and the tale of it has been told many times over. The hectic shoestring startup days, the late night poker binges, acquisitions, capital raises, Nasdaq float, extraordinary real estate investments.

Through it all, at least from this side, Atlassian has never looked close to failing in the way many, many other startups have. There must be a grand secret in it all somewhere.

And there is, except it’s not a secret. It’s right here in Barcelona, written in people-high letters in the middle of the floor, getting coloured in by attendees for the next three days:

‘TEAM’ at Atlassian Summit 2018. Picture: Peter Farquhar

Here on the cover of the excellent comic from attendee Comalatech in every attendees’ swag bag:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

And most tellingly, here:

In his keynote of the opening night of this year’s Summit, Farquhar said “making teams productive is the biggest impact Atlassian can have on the world”.

He then handed over to Shane Snow – journalist, geek, best selling author – to tell a few stories about what inspired his latest book, Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart.

In the entertaining 50 minutes that followed, Snow made a very telling point about how two heads are better than one – but only if they think differently. There were diagrams of stick figures on mountains, cake, and lots of talk about “heuristics” and “cognitive diversity” and “intellectual humility” to explain how it worked, and really, it was an impressive show.

But stories are always best, and here are the ones Snow chose to share.

The FBI

This was an actual quote by J Edgar Hoover:

Picture: Peter Farquhar

It was part and sentiment of a 5-page memo from Hoover trying to justify his stance against women, and here’s where it fell down, badly.

Around the same time, the FBI had a tough case on its hands. A well-known mob boss, who Snow tactfully referred to as Mr Soprano, was especially adept at avoiding being handed a subpoena, which was the only way a subpoena could be delivered.

Try as they might, the FBI’s team of 12 men could not find a way to crack Mr Soprano’s team of bodyguards, and they tried everything – hiding in bushes, kicking down doors, raids.

That team of the FBI’s best men all but gave up on ever getting Mr Soprano in front of a judge. Until two weeks after J Edgar Hoover died, and the FBI dropped his sexist mantra, and started hiring women.

One raw recruit, Christine Young, happened to be in the rooms during yet anotehr discussion about how to get the subpoena In Mr Soprano’s hands, and had the courage to put forward a thought.

It was very public knowledge that Mr Soprano’s daughter was about to get married. Young said how ’bout this – dress me up and put me in a fine car and send me to the wedding.

She arrived, got out of the fine car, and walked straight past the bodyguards. She joined a line that was working its way past Mr Soprano’s son and new wife, shaking hands and congratulating them. She did exactly the same, only when she came to congratulate Mr Soprano, she handed him the subpoena. Simples.

His howls of rage followed her as she hightailed it out of there.

The Wright Brothers

The Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk. Picture: Getty Images

Orville and Wilbur weren’t just aviation pioneers. They were also spectacularly argumentative.

In fact, when they were faced with a problem, they’d spend the whole day yelling at each other, calling a truce only to take lunch, when they’d calm down and be civil before kicking it all off again for the afternoon.

But before they kicked it off again, they’d make one crucial change. They’d take the other brother’s point of view for the rest of the day. And they’d argue it with exactly the same level of passion they’d been pushing the alternative with before lunch.

“Orville and Wilbur Wright, they knew that they were very similar so they had to force themselves into that zone of friction by taking these very hard stances on things.”

That forced the brothers to understand each other’s point of view. It turned out to be a phenomenally successful way to manage a problem a lot of teams will face, that of “cognitive friction”, because they invented a way to fly.

The origins of hip hop

When you’re a famous author, you get to call the Wu Tang Clan in to tell you some stories about how hip hop was invented. And this is what the Wu Tang Clan told Snow.

Before hip hop became a thing, dance battles were all the rage in the 1970s. Two DJs would compete and the winner was the DJ who convinced the crowd to dance in front of their turntables.

The better face-offs employed the use of MCs to convince the crowd to get over to their side, and for a while things were mostly civil.

One of the MCs, Busy Bee Starski, was killing it by using rhymes to help his man stand out. It worked until one night when the opposing MC Cool Moe D had enough.

“Hold on Busy B, I don’t mean to be bold, put this bah-diddy-bah bullshit on hold,” was the kind of thing he said, before he spent the next four minutes dissing Busy B in rhyme. The crowd went wild and next week, Busy B returned fire.

You can actually listen to it here.

People started turning up with tape recorders and the DJs themselves got competitive, hacking their own equipment and adding upgrades and features to give them the edge in the battles.

The battle – the conflict – not only created hip hop, but fostered in a new era of sound technology.

In that way, Snow says, innovation is not born just out of different ways of thinking, but of the friction between different ways of thinking.

Author Shane Snow at the Atlassian Summit 2018. Picture: Peter Farquhar

Conflict is good.

Snow gave several other fascinating examples of how diversity and conflict, when managed well, was not only desirable when building an effective team, but essential.

If any of the above struck a chord with you, check out his website and books.

“The key to how do a team well is it’s not about getting along; it’s about not getting along well,” he says.

*The author travelled to Barcelona as a guest of Atlassian.

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