The star system – bad news for teamwork?

Photo by Coredy


Bob Sutton writes in his blog about Boris Groysberg’s Research on star employees – Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth:

The results of this research are interesting because, while some leaders might think that there is no such thing as having too many stars, Boris and his colleagues found a curvilinear relationship between the number of stars in a group and overall performance — so, having a few stars help, have a few more doesn’t hurt (but doesn’t help), but groups reach a tipping point where too many stars seem to dampen performance. Groysberg and his colleagues suggest that the “too many cooks” problem happens partly because, when a group is filled with individual stars, the dynamics degenerate because people devote excessive attention to the internal status game and competition and hesitate to share information that may help the group as a whole, but will threaten their standing in the group. In other words, when there are too many stars, people focus on what is best for themselves, see other top performers as people who are in the way rather than people they should help, and the overall performance of the team seems less important.

Now, I haven’t read the article (it hasn’t been published yet), but I have a general problem with the basic assumption, as it is described in the blog post, about stars and their importance in teamwork. Sutton writes: “leaders might think that there is no such thing as having too many stars”. The whole notion of looking at people as stars is in my opinion, misplaced. For me, this represents a common misunderstanding about what teamwork really is. I am not surprised this research was conducted in Wall Street, where this kind of thinking is probably common place and where individuality is put on a pedestal and adored as a pagan god. Teamwork is about differences.

Because if you think about stars in a team it implies that all team members are equal or do the same thing and thus, one can outshine the other. It also implies that performance is the result of individual effort and not of a team effort – the interaction between the unique strengths and talents that each team member brings to the table.

The importance of individuality and stars in teamwork might be a conventional wisdom and an underlying assumption that is unfit for the world we now live in and the challenges modern business face. In a fascinating article called “Are smart people overrated?” that appears in his book What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell writes:

The broader failing of McKinsey and its acolytes at Enron is their assumption that an organization’s intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems. In a way, that’s understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.

When a team or system is the star there is an understanding that individual performance and ability are important, but just in the way it aligns with the bigger scheme of things. There is an understanding that each member of the team or system has an important role that he or she has to perform to best of their abilities and that the final outcome is dependent on each individual contribution. It is based on the assumption that each member is indispensible in his or her contribution to the team effort, because he brings something special that the rest of the team cannot do. It is a synergy between different individuals with different strengths and talents that could not be a threat to each other or be in competition with each other, because each and every one of them is unique in the contribution to the team.

What do you think about the star terminology?



Thoughts about teamwork and competition

Photo by Clearly Ambiguous

I love discovering  new blogs that show me other facets of the ideas I write about here in my blog. The Lean is Good blog certainly falls into this category. Yesterday, a new post was published there titled: Competition Among Peers – Deming’s Third Deadly Disease. Here is an excerpt:

Let’s talk about another assumption that underlies many of these systems – competition between peers increases productivity and effectiveness … it goes to logic that if peers know that at the end of the year only one person is going to get the good bonus or the good raise and one amongst the peers might have to be put on the ‘needs improvement’ list, some people will do what it takes to get the money.  If you force rank or demand differentiation you are incentivizing that behavior.  You have designed a system that encourages individualism at the expense of teamwork and creates an environment where Machiavellian machinations will be rewarded.

I don’t see anything wrong with some healthy competition in the team by itself. Hey, it could spice up the day a little bit. However, the question is: what is the goal and mindset of the competition? An even better question is: what is teamwork all about?

The conventional wisdom that is described in the Lean is Good blog post is that teamwork and teams are groups of individuals where each person tries to be best at the job. And when I say at the job I mean the entire job. That is why at the end of each year, one person goes home. They are all competing on the same skills and they are all measured according to the same measurement criteria. It is based on the underlining assumption that competition, or carrot and sticks, is the best way to motivate employees. And like many conventional wisdoms it is also unfortunately wrong.

That is not how teamwork works.  David Rendall, in his Changethis manifesto The Freak Factory: Making Employees Better by Helping Them Get Worse, reminds us:

Teamwork doesn’t mean that everybody does the same thing. It means that everyone contributes what they do best

And I add to that in my e-book:

There is the known proverb saying: “there is no ‘I’ in the word ‘Team’”. If you ask me, it is a silly notion because it takes to edge of the most important factor of the team – The teammates themselves. I think that a team is composed of a lot of “I”s. That is what makes it a strong team… A team is made powerful by using the comparative advantage of each team member and making it the team’s advantage

Think about a basketball team. If you would only measure one statistic, let’s say points, you would end up with a dysfunctional team. If everybody is trying to score, no one is passing, blocking or moving around. You might score some points in the short run, but you would not win in the long run. The best teams are the teams where every player knows his role is different and does that to best of his ability. This is why that are players whose contribution to the team does not appear on the regular statistic page but are still indispensable for their teams.

If you have a team where everybody “competes” for the same skill set you will have a group of mediocre employees who are good at some things but are not great at anything. And they will not support and complement each other to allow each one to excel at his comparative advantage. Teamwork is about finding synergies between team-members. It is about finding how the combination between each of the individuals makes each one of them better and thus makes the whole bigger.

This is something else that I wrote not a while back:

An effective team, among other things, is a team where every member is attuned with his strengths; where synergies are created from the diverse opinions and talents. And it takes time to create this synergy, because people are so different. But it is their differences that creates strength and allows them to perform excellently. I think everyone who has worked in a team felt it. The difference between the beginning of the life of the team and the end of it, when each team member has learned his teammates’ traits and knows how to work in tune with them

There is a need to encourage peer feedback and communication in teams. There is a need to create mechanism for improvement. There is also a need to motivate employees. However, we can’t do that by creating standard measurement criteria for each team-member and then making them compete against each other on these measures. The feedback, reward or even the layoffs when there is a need to layoff, all have to take into account the specific role of each team-member, his talents and skills and how he helps the team become excellent.


It’s not about you

Photo by David Boyle

On B-net Australia, Steve Tobak, writes about The Ten Rules of Great Teams:

  1. Great groups and great leaders create each other
  2. Every great group has a strong leader
  3. The leaders of great groups love talent and know where to find it
  4. Great groups think they are on a mission from God
  5. Great groups see themselves as winning underdogs
  6. Great groups always have an enemy
  7. People in great groups have blinders on
  8. Great groups are optimistic not realistic
  9. In great groups, the right person has the right job
  10. The leaders of great groups give them what they need and free them from the rest

I was going through this list and noticed something. The list mentions the idea of leadership a number of times (even though I think mostly management is a better term in this case), but it does not differentiate the concept from the group. The leader and the group are both part of one concept. And that reminded of something I wrote a few weeks back:

They way to create a shared story is not using your employees as instruments, but treating them as partners. And if you treat them as partners, the results will follow. It is more than making sure the job gets done. In order to get the job done, you can put processes in place. But a manager needs to think beyond getting the job done and beyond the process. A manager, as a facilitator, needs to create the conditions in which these processes take place. Conditions that lead to flow, joy and happiness.

Authority is not about telling people what to do either. The worst damage you can do is giving clear instructions because it prevents the communication inside the team and prevents the development of people. It means that there is a big chance the team will fail when you would not be there. And it is not about you, it is about your team. It is about completing the task together.

As things happen these days online, connections are created . Just a few minutes after reading the B-net article, I read Marshall Goldsmith’s post on the Harvard Business Review blog “Leadership isn’t about you“:

Charlie thought about my question. “As a coach,” he said, “you should realize that success with your clients isn’t all about you. It’s about the people who choose to work with you.” He chuckled; then he continued: “In a way, I am the same. The success of my organization isn’t about me. It’s all about the great people who are working with me.”

Maybe it is time to stop worrying about ourselves. It is time to realize that nobody cares about us. Being a great manager or leader is not about us. It is about connecting people to something bigger. It is about creating a shared story. It is about creating great people and great teams.