“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 American academic and founder of the quality movement, pointed out that what is important is not so much each individual’s motivation or ability, but the attributes of the system within which they operate.
It was of no great surprise then, when research by KPMG emerged suggesting that focusing on high performers doesn’t translate into improved business performance – in fact, it may do the opposite. The research revealed that those companies who had adopted a ‘war for talent’ approach had not seen their businesses succeed in their marketplace.
So, why is it that organisations continue to prioritise the individual over the team? And what are the consequences of this?
Many factors are at play, but 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. Head-hunters will not help you build an effective team, but they will happily sell you a lone superstar. Hiring talent rather than developing it is somehow seen as easier or cheaper, but by individuating recruitment in this way we create artificial scarcities and talent marketplaces that relate poorly to the real world of getting work done. The challenge of releasing the talent of all, rather than preferencing the capacities of the few, encapsulates the current talent management dilemma.
One of the consequences of focusing on individuals rather than teams – and managing for individual performance rather than team performance – is that it impedes cross-organisational learning. Why? Because in a war-for-talent company, talent competes with itself, striving for personal success instead of collective success. At Impact, one of our challenges is to help clients enable individuals to talk to each other in ways that are encouraging and that support learning. The more silos there are in our organisations, the more limited our capacity to learn together.
In highly individuated and fragmented organisations, people are reluctant to share their expertise in order to protect and enhance their position. But one of the aspects of great teams is that they work together in service to a collective goal that both transcends and incorporates individual motives and egos. Great teams are brilliant at learning together – both from each other and with each other.
An organisation’s ability 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 collective learning drives business success?
Grahame Broadbelt is Impact's Head of Global Communication and Research