Monday, August 15, 2005

Virtuoso Teams

The Harvard Business School Working Knowledge newsletter asks the question:
Can Superstars Play the Team Game?

Below is an edited excerpt:
In nearly any area of human achievement -- business, the arts, science, athletics, politics -- you can find teams that produce outstanding and innovative results. Such work groups are referred to as virtuoso teams, and they are fundamentally different from the garden-variety groups that most organizations form. Virtuoso teams comprise elite experts 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.

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.

Virtuoso teams play by a different set of rules than other teams. 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.

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, 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.


Anonymous Jack Krupansky said...

Their analysis does seem more than a little simplistic. I think a better analysis has to start with how individuals are *selected* to join the *organization* to begin with and how they are *encouraged* to stay with the organization for the long haul, even before they might be selected for a particular project team.

A lot (most?) or those super-star virtuosos self-select themselves out of most organizations and generally make themselves unavailable for selection for typical teams.

I actually do believe that managers *do* try their best to build the best teams that their abilities and resources permit them to do. If they don't put super-star virtuosos together, it's probably because they don't have the talent at their disposal.

If you don't see many virtuoso teams, it's probably because so few managers have been able to attract and *retain* that many super-star virtuoso individuals.

Most managers are clueless as to how to enable a project to succeed and resort to micro-management. Some managers even *enjoy* micro-management. For them, a super-star virtuoso team is a threat. For the garden-variety clueless manager a super-star virtuoso team is a huge win, but the manager's cluelessness tends to preclude the original selection that would have brought the super-stars into the organization to begin with.

-- Jack Krupansky

4:37 PM  

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