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Can Superstars Play the Team Game?

Most star players have trouble making a team effort. Here's how to get your stars to work together without relinquishing the talent and ego that makes them, well, unique. A Harvard Business Review excerpt.

Blood on the stage, racial tensions turned violent, dissonant music, and dancing hoodlums—West Side Story was anything but the treacly Broadway musical typical of the late 1950s. It was a high-stakes, radical innovation that fundamentally changed the face of American popular drama. The movie version earned ten Oscars. Not a bad achievement for the team of virtuosos—choreographer Jerome Robbins, writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—who created it.

In nearly any area of human achievement—business, the arts, science, athletics, politics—you can find teams that produce outstanding and innovative results. The business world offers a few examples. Think of the Whiz Kids—the team of ten former U.S. Air Force officers recruited en masse in 1946—who brought Ford back from the doldrums. Recall Seymour Cray and his team of "supermen" who, in the early 1960s, developed the very first commercially available supercomputer, far outpacing IBM's most powerful processor. More recently, consider Microsoft's Xbox team, which pulled off the unthinkable by designing a gaming platform that put serious pressure on the top-selling Sony PlayStation 2 in its first few months on the market.

We call such work groups virtuoso teams, and they are fundamentally different from the garden-variety groups that most organizations form to pursue more modest goals. Virtuoso teams comprise the elite experts in their particular fields and are specially convened for ambitious projects. Their work style has a frenetic rhythm. They emanate a discernable energy. They are utterly unique in the ambitiousness of their goals, the intensity of their conversations, the degree of their spirit, and the extraordinary results they deliver.

Most companies deliberately avoid virtuoso teams, thinking the risks are too high.

Despite such potential, most companies deliberately avoid virtuoso teams, thinking that the risks are too high. For one thing, it's tough to keep virtuoso teams together once they achieve their goals—burnout and the lure of new challenges rapidly winnow the ranks. For another, most firms consider expert individuals to be too elitist, temperamental, egocentric, and difficult to work with. Force such people to collaborate on a high-stakes project and they must come to fisticuffs. Even the very notion of managing such a group seems unimaginable. So most organizations fall into default mode, setting up project teams of people who get along nicely. The result is mediocrity. We've seen the pattern often.

For the past six years, we've studied the inner workings of teams charged with important projects in twenty of the world's best-known companies. We've found that some teams with big ambitions and considerable talent systematically fail, sometimes before our very eyes. In interviewing the managers involved, we discovered that virtuoso teams play by a different set of rules than other teams. The several dozen high-performance teams we studied, drawn from diverse fields, fit a few overarching criteria. Not only did they accomplish their enormous goals, but they also changed their businesses, their customers, even their industries.

Unlike traditional teams—which are typically made up of whoever's available, regardless of talent—virtuoso teams consist of star performers who are handpicked to play specific, key roles. These teams are intense and intimate, and they work best when members are forced together in cramped spaces under strict time constraints. They assume that their customers are every bit as smart and sophisticated as they are, so they don't cater to a stereotypical "average." Leaders of virtuoso teams put a premium on great collaboration—and they're not afraid to encourage creative confrontation to get it. [...]

Build the group ego
Traditional teams typically operate under the tyranny of the "we"—that is, they put group consensus and constraint above individual freedom. Team harmony is important; conviviality compensates for missing talent. This produces teams with great attitudes and happy members, but, to paraphrase [Max] Liebman [producer of the Admiral Broadway Revue and Your Show of Shows], "from a polite team comes a polite result."

When virtuoso teams begin their work, individuals are in and group consensus is out. As the project progresses, however, the individual stars harness themselves to the product of the group. Sooner or later, the members break through their own egocentrism and become a plurality with a single-minded focus on the goal. In short, they morph into a powerful team with a shared identity.

Consider how Norsk Hydro used a virtuoso team to handle a looming investor relations crisis. In 2002, Bloc 34, the potential site for a big oil find in Angola, turned out to be dry. Hydro had made a serious investment in the site. Somehow, senior management would have to convincingly explain the company's failure to the financial markets or Hydro's stock could plummet.

The senior managers understood that this problem was too critical to leave to conventional approaches, but Hydro was certainly not a natural environment for a virtuoso team. Rich in heritage, unwieldy, and traditional, with a strong engineering culture and a decidedly Nordic consensus-driven approach to decisions, the company never singled out or recognized individual performers. In fact, most of Hydro's business activities were specialized and separated. Teamwork was satisfactory but unexceptional, and tension among employees was firmly discouraged.

Defying precedent, team leader Kjell Sunde assembled a high-powered group comprising the very best technical people from across the company. Their task? To review a massive stream of data—one that had occupied the minds of some of the best professionals for more than four years. Their goal? To understand what had gone wrong in the original analysis of Bloc 34 and to assure key stakeholders that the company would prevent such an outcome from occurring again. Their deadline? A completely unreasonable six weeks.

Sunde's challenge was to strike a delicate balance between stroking the egos of the elites and focusing them on the task at hand. Each of the brilliant technologists was supremely confident in his abilities. Each had a reputation for being egocentric and difficult. Each had a tendency to dominate and aggressively seek the limelight. In a consensus-driven company like Hydro, the typical modus operandi would have been to exhort the individuals to surrender their egos and play nicely together.

Still, there were plenty of early clashes.

But Sunde went in the opposite direction, completely breaking with corporate culture by publicly celebrating the selected members and putting them squarely in the spotlight. The Bloc 34 Task Force, nicknamed the "A-Team," established a star mentality from its very inception. Selection for the project was clearly a sign of trust in each member's ability to perform outstanding work on a seemingly impossible task. For the most part, the members knew one another already, which eliminated the need for them to build polite relationships and helped them jump in right away.

Sunde then set about building the A-Team's group ego. He guaranteed the members the respect they craved by assuring them that they would work autonomously—there would be no micromanagement or intrusive scrutiny from above. Team members would have absolute top priority and access to any resources they required, their conclusions would be definitive, and there would be no second-guessing. All this set a positive tone and bolstered group morale.

Still, there were plenty of early clashes. To control the friction, Sunde introduced an overall pattern to the teamwork. First, he paired off individual team members in accordance with their expertise and his sense of their psychological fit. Each half of the couple worked on a separate but related problem, and each pair's problem set fit together with the other sets to form the overall puzzle, which team members had to keep in mind as they worked.

Eventually, each team member understood that if the team failed, he would fail too. This kept any of the team members from developing an entrenched sense of idea ownership. As it worked, the team transformed itself from a collection of egocentric individuals into one great totality. Had the group started out as a cohesive whole, individual talents might never have been realized and harnessed to the goal.

Excerpted with permission from "Virtuoso Teams," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 83, No. 7, July-August 2005.

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Bill Fischer (fischer@imd.ch) is a professor of technology management at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Andy Boynton (boynton@bc.edu) is the dean of Boston College's Carroll School of Management.

Traditional Teams vs. Virtuoso Teams

by Bill Fischer and Andy Boynton

Traditional Teams vs. Virtuoso Teams

Used with permission from "Virtuoso Teams," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 83, No. 7, July-August 2005.