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The best players don’t always make the best team

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The best players don’t always make the best team

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With the football World Cup well under way in Brazil, there will no doubt be many discussions around the world about the best line-ups for respective nations.  It isn’t all that different in boardrooms throughout the land, with most organizations doing all they can to lure the finest talent.

In the football world however, there have been numerous examples of the teams with the best individual players not gelling effectively as a unit, and therefore being beaten by a team that on paper should not have stood a chance.  This was highlighted in recent research from INSEAD that showed how excessive numbers of talented individuals can actually harm a teams performance.

“Most people believe that the relationship between talent and team performance is linear – the more their team is packed with talent, the better they will do,” explains the paper. “Yet our latest research documenting a ‘too-much-talent effect’, reveals that for teams requiring high levels of interdependence, like football and basketball, talent facilitates team performance… but only up to a point. Beyond this point, the benefits of adding more top talent will decrease and eventually hurt the team performance because they fail to coordinate their actions.”

The report goes on to say that this effect is usually only seen in sports whereby a high level of teamwork is required.  More individual sports, such as cricket and baseball, do not suffer when teams are loaded with talented individuals.  The paper draws parallels with talent management in our organizations, suggesting that when team work and collaboration are required, we may be better off overlooking the seriously talented.

“Like sports teams, teams in organizations vary in their levels of interdependence. When team success merely depends on the accumulation of individual performance (e.g. sales teams), hiring and staffing could simply focus on getting the most talented individuals on board,” it says. “However, these same strategies can hurt a willingness to coordinate effectively when team success depends on high levels of interdependence (e.g. strategy teams). When interdependence between team members is high, organizations could either hire a better mix of top talent and non-top talent and/or invest more in training to formalize roles, ranks, and responsibilities.”

The findings match those from a similar paper published by Northeastern University recently.  The study explored the academic world of the physics community, and analysed the careers of physicists who began working between 1950 and 1980, before tracking their careers up until 2012.  They ranked the role the institution the academics worked at played in their collaborative potential by counting the number of citations each institution’s papers received within five years of publication.

By monitoring both the affiliations of individual scientists, and by counting their citations in a similar way, the researchers believe they can figure out whether the scientist upgrading to a higher ranking university had an impact upon their productivity and success.

After analysing some 2,700 or so careers, the researchers found that this did not occur.  Despite the number of career moves undertaken by scientists being very low (once or twice per career), the study found little evidence that moving to a higher ranking university had any impact upon their output.

The suggestion is therefore, that the high ranking university had little impact, or added little value if you will, to the output of their employees.  Given how the collaboration industry is urging organizations to encourage the serendipitous collaborations between employees to tap into all of that wisdom and help one another get the most value from each employee, this finding is indeed cause for concern.

Of course, that isn’t to say that collaboration isn’t effective, merely that this study seems to suggest that there is no guarantee that clustering the best minds close to one another will naturally cause magic to occur.  It should also be said, that the paper found that the more prestigious universities afforded the scientists greater bang for their buck, in the sense that their papers tended to generate greater numbers of citations, but their productivity was largely unmoved.

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