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Harvard Business Review

Making star teams out of star players

Making star teams out of star players

Managing a team of stars is a leadership challenge, but the results can be extraordinary.

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Making star teams out of star players

The full version of this article is available on Harvard Business Online (subscription required).

The Idea in Brief

When it comes to an organization’s scarcest resource—talent—the difference between the best and the rest is enormous. In fields that involve repetitive, transactional tasks, top performers are typically two or three times as productive as others. Justo Thomas, the best fish butcher at Le Bernardin restaurant in New York, can portion as much fish in an hour as the average prep cook can manage in three hours. In highly specialized or creative work, the differential is likely to be a factor of six or more. Before becoming chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts prevailed in 25 of the 39 cases he argued before the Court. That record is almost nine times better than the average record of other winning attorneys (excluding solicitors general) who have argued before the Court since 1950. Across all job types, we estimate, the best performers are roughly four times as productive as average performers. That holds in every industry, geographical region, and type of organization we’ve examined.

Why, then, do companies so rarely bring together a team of star players to tackle a big challenge? The easy answer—indeed, the conventional wisdom—is that all-star teams just don’t work. Egos will take over. The stars won’t work well with one another. They’ll drive the team leader crazy.

We think it’s time to reconsider that assumption. To be sure, managing a team of stars is not for the faint of heart. (The conventional wisdom is there for a reason.) But when the stakes are high—when a business model needs to be reinvented, say, or a key new product designed, or a strategic problem solved—doesn’t it seem foolish not to put your best people on the job, provided you can find a way to manage them effectively?

We have seen all-star teams do extraordinary work. For example, it took just 600 Apple engineers less than two years to develop, debug, and deploy OS X, a revolutionary change in the company’s operating system. By contrast, it took as many as 10,000 engineers more than five years to develop, debug, deploy, and eventually retract Microsoft’s Windows Vista.

Common sense suggests that all-star teams would have two big advantages:

Sheer firepower. If you have world-class talent of all kinds on a team, you multiply the productivity and performance advantages that stand-alone stars deliver. Consider auto-racing pit crews. Kyle Busch’s six-man crew is widely considered the finest on the NASCAR circuit. And each member is the best for his position—gas man, jackman, tire carriers, and tire changers. Crew members train together year-round with one clear goal in mind: to get Busch’s #18 racer in and out of the pit in the shortest possible time. The crew can execute a standard pit stop—73 maneuvers, including refueling and a change of all four tires—in 12.12 seconds. Add just one average player to Busch’s crew—say, an ordinary tire changer—and that time nearly doubles, to 23.09 seconds. Add two average team members to the mix, and it climbs to well over half a minute.

Synergy. Putting the best thinkers together can spur creativity and ideas that no one member of the team would have developed alone. The blockbuster movie Toy Story—the top-grossing film of 1995—wasn’t the product of one visionary filmmaker. Rather, it was the result of an often prickly but ultimately productive collaboration among Pixar’s top artists and animators, Disney’s veteran executives (including Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of the film division), and Steve Jobs. The Pixar team originally presented Disney with what Katzenberg deemed an uninspiring tale. A major revision—far more edgy, at Katzenberg’s insistence—lacked the cheeriness essential to a family movie. Finally the all-star group came up with something that satisfied everyone on the team—and that would later be dubbed by Time magazine “the year’s most inventive comedy.”

To do their best, alpha teams need leaders and support staff who are all-stars too. Extremely talented people have often never worked for someone they can learn a lot from; in our experience, most relish the opportunity and pull out all the stops. And high-caliber subordinates allow team members to accomplish more. A gifted administrative assistant, for example, requires less direction and completely shoulders many routine tasks, so the other team members can focus on what they do best.

Read the full article on Harvard Business Online.


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