Close button
The Guardian
Email YouTube Facebook Instagram Twitter WhatsApp

We don’t need the best people, we need the best teams


Humankind has always been in search of ways to get leverage for efforts. In this pursuit, it seems we have built the Earth’s philosophy upon the Superstar mentality – that one person that can achieve superstar-level results. Is it possible that we have over rated the contribution of an individual above the contribution of teams? How much can the most talented and most endowed person achieve all by himself?

Let me show you something I stumbled on in Football. Take a look at the world’s four biggest leagues: Premiership from UK; La Liga from Spain; Serie A from Italy; and Bundesliga from Germany. Match data of the winning team against that of the highest goal scorer over ten years, and you would find that it is only 40 percent of the time that the top goal scorer comes from the league winner for UK; only 40 percent of the time from Spain; only 20 percent of the time from Italy and 30 percent of the time from Germany.

On the average, in these four leagues combined over an eleven-year period, spanning ten seasons, it is only three times (in ten seasons), that the winning club also had the highest goal scorer. You might want to conclude that you don’t need the highest goal scorer on your team to win the league.

Talent vs Teamwork?
Greg Satell presents to us through his article that best teams trump best people any day. This article is a copious presentation of his article: “In 1997, in a landmark article, McKinsey declared the war for talent.  The firm argued that due to demographic shifts, recruiting the “best and the brightest” was even more important than “capital, strategy, or R&D.” The report was enormously influential and continues to affect how enterprises operate even today. Companies were urged to identify specific traits they were looking for, aggressively recruit and retain the very best performers, and move quickly to weed out those who didn’t measure up.  Some companies, such as General Electric, instituted a policy of stacked ranking, routinely firing the bottom 10% of their workers.

Yet in a new book, Humans Are Underrated, longtime Fortune  editor Geoff Colvin challenges this notion.  As it turns out, what it takes to compete in today’s world is not the best individual performers, but the best teams.  Having the “smartest guys in the room” won’t do you much good if they can’t work with others effectively.  We need to rethink how we approach talent.

The Increasing Dominance of Teams
Greg Satell continues: “In the aftermath of 9/11, the CIA commissioned a study to determine what attributes made for the most effective analyst teams.  What they found was surprising.  As it turned out, what made for the most effective teams was not the individual attributes of their members, or even the coaching they got from their leaders, but the interactions within the team itself.

Managers have long sought to stock their organizations with great performers.  Hard working people who went to top schools, scored high on aptitude tests and had a proven track record of getting results were highly sought after. Compensation schemes and retention practices were similarly geared to individual performance. However, recent studies show that high value work is increasingly done, not by individuals, but teams; and those teams are increasing in size.

Moreover, other research demonstrates that diverse teams outperform others that are more homogenous, even if the more uniform units are made up of people with higher ability. In fact, almost everywhere you look, there is evidence that belies the central premise of the “war for talent” approach that McKinsey promoted and that so many organizations have adopted.  What’s increasingly becoming clear is that the focus on individual performance was misguided. We need to shift our focus from individuals to teams.

What’s Driving the Shift?
At first, the new emphasis on teams, rather than individual performance, can be a little hard to swallow. We’ve all seen great performers at work and marveled at their effectiveness, just as we’ve all seen real buffoons in action, who can’t seem to tie their own shoelaces.  It seems far-fetched, to say the least, that the former do not outperform the latter.

Yet in truth, very few people are stars or dolts, most sit somewhere in between and cognitive ability isn’t as consequential as it used to be. Consider the fact that an ordinary teenager with a smartphone has more access to information than even a genius working in a high-powered organization a generation ago and it becomes clear that talent is overrated. So just as the industrial revolution devalued physical power, the digital age is reducing the importance of cognitive power.  Increasingly, we’re collaborating with machines to get work done.  Further, as the world grows more complex, expertise is becoming more domain specific, so we need to work with others to get things done.

The effect of teams is even becoming clear in fields that have long been considered in the realm of individual performance.  The National Transportation Safety Board, for example, found that 73% of flight incidents happen on the crew’s first day together, before they had a chance to build a team dynamic.
Another study showed that surgeons perform markedly worse at unfamiliar hospitals.

Building a Team of Teams
Just as the individual capabilities of team members isn’t nearly as important as how they work together, overemphasizing individual team performance can hinder the performance of the organization as a whole. As he describes in Team of Teams, that’s what General Stanley McChrystal found when fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. Although as the Commander of Special Forces, he led some of the world’s most capable teams, the interactions between them left much to be desired.

Commandos would capture valuable intelligence which would often sit for weeks before a team of analysts get to it.  Insights from analysts, on the other hand, often weren’t getting to the soldiers on ground. McChrystal saw that his forces had fallen into an efficiency paradox.  In their zeal to field the most capable teams hell bent on accomplishing their specific missions, interoperability suffered and the shared mission of the organization was being lost.

They were winning every battle, but somehow still losing the war. So McChrystal took steps to network his organization, even if that meant slowing the individual teams down slightly.  For example, he took top soldiers out of the field and made them liaison officers—usually a role for those past their prime.  He also embedded analysts in commando units and vice versa.  The result was that overall efficiency increased by a factor of seventeen.

What Makes a Great Team?
Managers have long relied on assessments such as the IQ tests to identify high performers and those scores do correlate highly with individual achievement.  However, the work we do today demands greater collaboration and the same individual skills don’t necessarily transfer to a group setting.

In fact, some high performance traits, like assertiveness, negatively affect teams. To understand how to create more effective teams, scientists at MIT and Carnegie Mellon have identified a collective intelligence factor that predicts group performance.  Rather than hard driving “A personalities,” it turns out that high performing teams are made up with people who have high social sensitivity, take turns when speaking and, surprisingly the number of women in the group.

Another study found that successful groups exhibited behaviors that engender trust, such as facing each other while talking and making eye contact.  Colvin also pointed to further research, still unpublished, which suggested that team performance was hindered when people believed that their work was being individually assessed.

Next steps?
All of these points to a major change in how we need to recruit, train and manage people.  Many long-held practices, such as individual performance assessments and compensation, will have to be reassessed. The best performers are no longer the hard driving executives that can impose their force of will, but those who can engender trust and encourage others to contribute. These thoughts by Greg Satell is food for thought for HR practitioners, managers, business leaders, religious leaders, political leaders, CEOs etc. By the way, Greg Satell is a US based business consultant and you can find his blog at and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto. I feel that this firmly builds on the idea that IQ is good but limited in breadth of performance. EQ is the foundational skill for getting more out of oneself and for building and maintaining a great team.

Dave Ulrich’s Advice: Make the Sum greater than the Parts
Leaders and HR practitioners should hear and heed Dave Ulrich (a leading HR thought leader), “Often in HR we focus on the individual, who’s got talent and how do we build talent? What I like with capability is that talent has to come together in teamwork. And you have to make the whole more than the individual parts. The example we love to use is sports. The person who scores the most points in the world cup, the winner of the golden boot, is on the winning team about 20% of the time. The team is more important than the individual. In basketball, the leading scorer is on the team that wins the MBA championship about 20% of the time. In movies, the winner of the actor/actress award in the Oscar’s is on the movie that wins the Oscar of the year about 20% of the time. Capability building is when you make the whole greater than the parts – when the team is better than the individual”. As Bill O’Reilly would say, this is the memo.

In this article:
Receive News Alerts on Whatsapp: +2348136370421

No comments yet