Something, I have often reflected and lectured on is whether you can have too much talent on your team. For a team to succeed, each individual needs to perform and the team needs to collaborate effectively. Whether a team can have too much talent rests on the extent to which the task requires collaboration, or what we academics call, high interdependence.
To elaborate on the concept of interdependence in team contexts, I used to distinguish between two types of sports. There are those team sports like cricket, where the coordination required between team members is relatively minimal. Then there are the second type of team sports, like hockey and soccer, where real time and continuous coordination between members is necessary for team success.
The point is that the relative importance of the two components, individual performance and collaboration, depends on the type of sport. For example, in cricket, interdependence and coordination is limited to largely running between wickets. As a result, individual talent is more important than collaboration between team members. In contrast, hockey, soccer and basketball are sports where people play with each other as much as against each other. This is especially the case for basketball, where few players coordinate intensively on a small playing field.
Recently, I saw a video by professor Adam Galinsky from Columbia Business School.
With his co-authors, he studied team success during 10 seasons of baseball and basketball. What they found was consistent with my hypothesis. In baseball, which like cricket, requires relatively low coordination between players, the more talent on the team, the higher the performance of the team. In contrast, in basketball, team performance improves with better talent, but only up to a point. Beyond a certain level, adding more talent to a team led to lower team success. In basketball, at higher levels of talent, the detrimental effects on team performance from decline in collaboration could not be offset by the individual performance benefits that the additional talent brought to the team.
To summarise, adding more talent to cricket teams will always help. However, adding more talent to a hockey, football, or basketball team may not always lead to better results. Unfortunately, there is no formula for knowing when the point of too much talent has been breached in high interdependence teams. Ultimately, it is the coach’s call to assess that, and to ensure that the range of skills needed are present on the team, without getting in the way of status conflict harmful to team performance.
Interesting research from farms can help enlighten on status conflict from talent and its deleterious effects on team performance. Any farmer would like to have the highest egg producing chickens together on the farm. But studies indicate that this results in egg production actually declining. Why? The highest egg producing chickens are also more competitive and dominant. As a result, when placed together, they start battling for territory and status. This fight for pecking order distracts the chickens from producing the most eggs. Similar animal spirits are alive in us, and only sometimes, below the surface in organisations.
The Indian example
When I was growing up, I felt that India, for years, had 11 of the best hockey players in the world but were beaten by teams with relatively average players who worked harder on team concepts and team techniques (for example, penalty corners). Having worked in more than 60 countries as a consultant, I have discovered that some cultures excel at team work. This is especially true for smaller countries such as Netherlands and Sweden, but there are also some larger countries like Germany, Japan, and Thailand. In India, it is hard to make the team concept work as people dislike playing their position. Walk into a retail setting, and one will observe employees get in each other’s way rather than stay at their stations or jointly do tasks that are more effectively done by an individual.
Of course, this entire provocation is to question, if in organisations, we think deeply enough about which type of team sport is the relevant analogy when forming teams and incentivising them:
- In which tasks do we need high interdependence for success, and in such situations, how do we select the “best talent” for the team? How do we trade-off “best” talent or individual performance with “best for the team” or collaborative performance?
- In which tasks is the level of interdependence rather low (clear roles can be defined with strict interfaces) and how do we ensure we have the best talent for these teams?
- Does the definition of who is the “best talent” differ when we work in these two situations? Are we discerning enough?
Companies have very strong models to allocate cash (financial capital) to projects but poor models to allocate people (human capital) to teams.
Nirmalya Kumar is Member-Group Executive Council at Tata Sons and Visiting Professor of Marketing at London Business School. His Twitter handle is @ProfKumar. This article is written in his personal capacity.