What’s the Common Ingredient for Team Success in Surgery, Banking, Software, Airlines, and Basketball?

This article is for leaders who are seeking an edge in maximizing the talents and performance of their teams.

Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (a must read book!), recently published a great LinkedIn article called “What’s the Common Ingredient for Team Success in Surgery, Banking, Software, Airlines, and Basketball?” I want to share it with you, along with my comments, because it’s a great illustration that success has more to do with the surrounding environment (i.e., vision and values, structure, process, and team) than with individual talent.

To get important work done, most leaders organize people into teams. They believe that when people collaborate toward a common goal, great things can happen. Yet in reality, the whole is often much less than the sum of the parts.

Many teams fail because they lack the requisite experience. If you want to perform a successful cardiac surgery, you need to bring in surgeons who have mastered the techniques. If your aim is to make good stock recommendations to investors, it would be wise to hire analysts with a long track record of star performance. If your goal is to produce high-quality software, land an airplane safely, or win basketball games, you’d be smart to rely on people who have done it before. As Jim Collins put it, we need to get the right people on the bus. But what if work experience is overrated?

How many times have you interviewed in the past year looking for “past experience” as one of the primary drivers of job fit? This is a fallacy, which I’ve written about before in “What Warren Buffet Can Teach You About Hiring”, that needs to end. Yesterday. And here’s where this gets interesting:

In a brilliant study, researchers Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano tracked more than 200 cardiac surgeons at 43 hospitals. After analyzing more than 38,000 procedures, it turned out that the surgeons didn’t get better with practice. Their patient mortality rates were no better after 100 surgeries than after the first few.

A closer look at the data revealed a fascinating pattern. The surgeons did get better as they gained more experience at a particular hospital. Each procedure performed at one hospital decreased patient mortality rates by an average of 1%. But the benefits of experience didn’t carry over to other hospitals.

The technologies weren’t any different from one hospital to another; the people were. When the surgeons left their teams behind, it was as if they were starting over from scratch without any of the benefits of practice. Practice wasn’t an individual act; it was a team process. As the surgeons worked with a core team of nurses and anesthesiologists at one hospital, they developed effective routines that leveraged the unique talents of each member.

There’s a growing movement within the professional recruiting market to assess the skills and attributes of the top-performing “stars” in a company and seek to find new candidates just like them. Like Communism, this approach sounds great on paper but fails in reality. Why? Because great teams are born out of complements, not similars. Success occurs within complementary teams, in a unified setting, and with efficient processes, clear metrics, a sound structure, and great support. This is a delicate mix. If you keep hiring “all stars” on paper, you run the great risk of destroying the equilibrium. Just look at the 2013 Lakers. A bunch of future Hall of Famers who don’t mesh well as a team.

In teams, it appears that shared experience matters more than individual experience. The best groups aren’t necessarily the ones with the most stars, but rather the teams that have collaborated in the past. In a study of more than 1,000 security analysts led by Boris Groysberg, when star analysts moved to a new firm, it took them an average of at least five years to recover their star status—unless they moved with their teams. The star analysts who moved alone had 5% odds of receiving the highest ranking from investors, whereas those who transferred with their teams enjoyed a 10% chance of earning the top spot.

Huckman and his colleagues found similar patterns in a study of more than 100 software development projects. The highest quality and on-time delivery rates were achieved not by the teams whose members had the most individual experience, but by the teams whose members had the most shared experience working together. Another study of product development teams showed that it typically took two to four years for members to gain sufficient experience working together to achieve their potential.

Shared experience in teams is so important that Richard Hackman, one of the world’s foremost experts on teams, went so far as to include it in the very definition of team effectiveness. In Leading Teams, he argues that, in addition to assessing the quality and quantity of output, we should expand our measures of team effectiveness to include viability—whether the team retains its capability to work together in the future.

The benefits of shared experience are visible outside knowledge work. Hackman referenced a NASA study showing that fatigued crews with experience flying together made significantly fewer errors than rested crews who had never flown together. He also pointed to an NTSB analysis of airline accidents revealing that 44% occurred on a crew’s first flight together and 73% on a crew’s first day. And an investigation of all NBA basketball games played from 1980 to 1994 showed that as teams gained more experience, they won more games. This was true even after accounting for player talent and age.

If you think about it, teamwork is blending individuals’ talents and strengths into a force that is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s real chemistry and alchemy here. It takes time and seasoning for a good team to become great. Time is necessary for team members to get to know one another and anticipate each other’s thinking and moves. But I think the real value comes when the team “grows up together.” Once the team has developed a sense of a shared journey, sacrifice, and group learning from successfully moving through trials together, then its true potential can be unlocked.

There are alternative explanations for some of these findings. Many airline crews only do one flight or day together, meaning that there are more chances for accidents to occur on first flights and first days. Basketball executives and coaches work harder to keep successful teams together—and players are more motivated to stay with winning teams. Consistent with this idea, when NBA teams win more games in year 1, they’re more likely to stay together in year 2. But the opposite also holds: NBA teams with more shared experience in year 1 win more games in year 2.

Interestingly, in the NBA and R&D, the gains from shared experience declined over time. The value of the first few years together was much greater than additional years accumulated. As teams stayed together longer, they had less to learn and faced a greater risk of becoming too rigid and predictable in their routines. At that point, rotating a member—or a coach—might be a critical step. But most teams never made it there. The vast majority of teams weren’t together long enough to benefit from shared experience.

Today, too many teams are temporary: people collaborate on a single project and never work together again. Teams need the opportunity to learn about each other’s capabilities and develop productive routines. So once we get the right people on the bus, let’s make sure they spend some time driving together.

From the perspective of Organizational Physics, there’s something absolutely critical to highlight here: the importance of lifecycle theory. Great leaders understand an organization’s lifecycle stage and treat it accordingly. If you let your team stay together too long, it’s going to get tired and stale. It will lose its humph and innovative power. Conversely, if you break the team up too soon, it will never have a chance to learn from its mistakes and form into something great. The key here is to recognize what lifecycle stage each team is at, as well as the stage of the surrounding business unit in which the team operates. You don’t treat a 30-year-old like a 3-year-old and vice versa.

If you’d like to learn some signals to watch for when a team should be broken up or kept together, or if you have any other questions or comments, please include them in the comments area below.

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About Lex Sisney

Lex Sisney is an expert at creating breakthroughs in individuals and organizations. He's grown from co-founder and CEO of the world's largest affiliate marketing company to follow his passion as CEO Coach to the world's next generation of expansion-stage companies.

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