teams learn better than groups of superstars

Why Teams Learn Better Than Groups of Superstars

"What we need to do is learn to work in the system, by which I mean that everybody, every team, every platform, every division, every component is there not for competitive profit or recognition, but for contribution to the system as a whole on a win-win basis."

W. Edwards Deming

It has long been demonstrated that great teams outperform collections of individuals - even when the individuals are more talented. W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, pointed out eons ago that what is important is not so much each individual’s motivation or ability, but the attributes of the system within which the individual works. 

It was of no great surprise then, that research which emerged via KPMG (original research here) suggested that focusing on high performers doesn’t translate into improved business performance and may in fact do the opposite. The research revealed that those companies who had wholeheartedly adopted a ‘War for Talent’ approach had not seen their businesses perform well in their marketplace.

So, why is it that organisations continue to over-emphasise the importance of the individual and under-emphasise the importance of team? And what are the consequences of this?

In our conversations around the first question we decided that many factors are in play, but felt that the most likely explanation is that when it comes to designing recruitment and retention processes it is easier to focus on individuals rather than teams. Not many headhunters will help you build an effective team, but they will happily sell you a superstar. Recruitment is individuated in ways that create artificial scarcities and talent marketplaces that relate poorly to the real world of getting work done. Hiring talent rather than developing it is somehow seen as easier, or cheaper. Maybe. In any event, the challenge of releasing the talent of all, rather than preferencing the capacities of the few, seems to capture something of the current talent management dilemma.

One of the many consequences of focusing on individuals rather than teams - and managing for individual performance rather than team performance - is that it inhibits cross-organisational learning. Why? Because in a war-for-talent company talent is competing with itself, seeking personal success ahead of collective success. At Impact, in our work with organisations across the globe, one of our key challenges is to help clients overcome the difficulty of getting individuals to talk to each other in ways which encourage and support learning. The more silos there are in our organisations, the greater the constraints on our capacity to learn together.

One of the features of great teams is that they play together in service to a collective goal that transcends and incorporates individual motives and egos. Great teams are great at learning together, from each other and with each other. In highly individuated and fragmented organisations, people will tend to keep their expertise to themselves in an attempt to protect and enhance their credentials and position.

The ability of an organisation to learn is fundamental to its capacity to be resilient, to thrive and to adapt.

Is this part of the reason why the ‘War for Talent’ approach seems not to have served its devotees well? How can we create the cultural conditions through which teams thrive and learning drives business success?

Grahame Broadbelt is Impact's Head of Global Communication and Research