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When Teams That Gel Make Stars Expendable....

Do you have a star system or a team system? Or a hybrid of both?

I ask because sometimes you have stars.  Then sometimes your team grows and makes the star Networks expendable, and maybe even a barrier to future success. 

Let's say you have a star, and the star performs well.  Then, you have a special project, and the star leaves the team in your company for awhile.  You know the drill, a project is too important to fail. So your company puts the star on that project and pledges to simply plow ahead with the team that remains in the core business.  The powers that be simply hope the team that remains can maintain the current market position.

Then a funny thing happens.  The team starts acting like a team and starts relying on each other and taking more responsibility, rather than simply relying on the star to make it rain.  In short, they maximize their talent and start getting results by working together.

Then, the special project ends and the star returns, except things are different now.  The team is getting similar or better results by accepting greater responsibility and working together - without the star.

Why's this on my mind? I've been following the saga of pro basketball's Houston Rockets, who have been without NBA all-stars, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, for most of the last two years.  You would think that means the Rockets have been dismal over the past couple of seasons, but they haven't.  They're exceeding expectations this year, and went on an improbable 22 game winning streak during the 08-09 season. 

How'd they do it without the superstars?  They put the responsibility in the hands of the role players, who had to grow as individual talents and rely heavily on each other as teammates.

You'd think with that type of talent growth, plugging the superstar back into the equation would mean the Rockets would be even better.  But talent doesn't work like that, does it?  Instead of plugging McGrady back into the team, the Rockets are balking at bringing the All-Star back into the fold, content to roll with the team approach.

It reminds me of the chart my friend, Josh Letourneau, shared with me last week regarding effective networks (shown to the right of this post).  Would you rather have everything going through one of two people, or a team that's flexible and can go to one of 30 people when they have a need?

The same could be said for an over-reliance on the star.


Jason Seiden

I've made charts like this one for a number of clients, and the story is almost always the same.

We need stars b/c they make great folklore and get people excited, but it's teams that get the job done.

It doesn't matter if it's Sheriff Will Cain in High Noon, MJ and the Bulls, or Bono singing "Sunday Bloody Sunday," where there's an effective star, there's an orchestrated team making things happen.

And when there's no team, that's when mistakes happen. Just ask U Mich, which may never live down the collapse of the Fab 5 in their infamous game against Duke.

Mark Birch

The Houston Rockets are an exemplar of the adage "the whole are better than the parts." Michigan's Fab Five are the oppposite example. Jason is right though that you need both, just like the Bulls needed not only Jordan but a team around Jordan before they dominated.

This speaks to something more broadly regarding the nature of talent. Skills adjust based on the environment and can be stifled in the presence of star power. The challenge for coaches / managers is to understand the full complement of skills across the team and balance these effectively.

Wally Bock

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

working girl

Interesting and it's certainly true that a star acting as gate keeper can cramp everyone's style. However, I'm not sure that's the typical constellation. For example, I've worked with managers who are gate keepers, which tended to frustrate their stars (and everyone else). I've also managed teams where everyone had their own job to do and the stars were a bright spot because they functioned and allowed me to focus on team members who needed more support. Another thing that strikes me is that the second picture has way more meetings going on. A poor gate keeper may hoard information and block communication but a good gate keeper can keep the process moving so everyone doesn't get bogged down in meeting mania. This is an interesting topic, thanks for bringing it up.

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