Frenemies in teams - Lessons from Angry Birds!


The tagline for the Angry Birds sequel is "Frenemies Unite.” In case, you aren't across all of the intricacies of the story (I went in pretty cold), all that you really need to know is this. The birds and pigs live on separate islands and are engaged in a longstanding prank war. I don't think that I'm giving too much away by telling you that in this movie, they are forced to work together to defeat a common enemy intent on taking over both of their islands.

As I was watching the movie, I was struck by how familiar the story seemed. Not only in the Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey kind of way, but also how much it felt like stories I have seen working in companies or with clients. The birds and pigs could easily have been:

  • Sales and Marketing departments

  • Finance and Operations divisions

  • Legal and Innovation functions

Here are the big things that I picked up in the movie and the overall themes that are applicable in organisations.

Cross functional teams are on the rise

Increasingly, the work that needs to be done can't be done by an individual. Beyond that, it is increasingly likely that the skillset within one part of an organisation will not be enough to get the right work done. There are also increasing examples of teams crossing organisational boundaries - from formal Joint Ventures to informal cooperation and collaboration to mutual benefit. This challenges a lot of the ways that we have learned to team. It's unsurprising that this 2015 Harvard Business Review article found that nearly 75% of cross functional teams are dysfunctional.

A clear and compelling purpose helps

The only reason that the birds and the pigs even considered working together was the presence of a common enemy. It was in both groups' interest to work together and neutralise the third island's impact. In organisational settings, we don't always have an 'enemy,’ but the ability to be clear on why working together serves to benefit each member or sub-group makes it easier. It helps if it's more than intellectual and is something that team members believe is clear, challenging (but not impossible), and consequential.


We don't need another hero

One scene early on in the movie after the pigs and birds realise that they will need to work together was a bit like a Dilbert comic. The two appointed leaders from each team spent a lot of time arguing about who was going to be "The Hero" and save the day. This sort of posturing and focus on status is all too common in the stories that I hear. Admitting that you need help, might not have all the answers or are not best positioned to get the best work done is not easy for a lot of us who have been (implicitly or explicitly) taught that these are signs of weakness. The days of heroic leadership are over for real teams. We need leaders who turn up and help us all bring our best.

You've heard this stuff before

One thing that struck me is that these themes were coming up in a kids movie! It reinforced one of my hypotheses - that many of these things are universal. The lessons that we need to learn as a kid remain valuable as adults. The lessons that were learned in ancient times - by the Greeks, the stoics in Rome or Eastern religions - often apply. A conversation that I had last week even suggested that we can even look to nature to see how these challenges have been resolved.

It suggests to me that this work is both important and challenging. We have been wrestling with this for a long time. Anywhere you can learn more about teams is likely to serve you well. Some questions for you to consider this week:

  1. How many of your teams are cross functional?

  2. How do you work with frenemies (even if the team is not cross functional)?

  3. What is an unlikely way that you could learn about teams?