Since we think of ourselves as individuals, we like to measure individual performance. We care about the shortstop’s batting average and the quarterback’s passing efficiency rating.
But, we also know that these players are part of a team. If other parts of the team are not functioning optimally individual performance will decline.
If you move a quarterback to another team, one that is as unfamiliar with him as he is with it, you would expect that his performance will decline… for a time, at least.
Measures of individual performance are misleading. A team of great individual performers they might be less successful than an experienced team of less-than-great performers.
Social psychologists have noted the phenomenon. They have shown that, when it comes to heart surgeons and security analysts, a high level of individual performance requires an experienced team.
Adam Grant reports on the research:
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 involves coordination, harmony and confidence. Not only are actions coordinated and routinized, but morale is maintained by the fact that everyone knows everyone else. If there is no turnover, then people are more confident about keeping their jobs.
In some situations, like surgery, it is obvious that team members need all to be present. If some of the members are telecommuting, how does this affect team cohesion?
We emphasize the fact that it takes a number of years for a team to learn to function well.
But, what happens when teams come together on a temporary basis to address a specific problem. One thinks of movie production. In some cases producers keep their teams together from one movie to the next. In other cases, they put together a new team for each film. The research suggests that the former is better than the latter.
If a producer can replace the good editor who has been part of the team for many years with a star editor who nobody knows, he should, by this analysis, keep with the editor who has been part of the team.
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.
And yet, if teams stay together too long, they tend to lose their competitive edge.
In Grant’s words:
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.
Teams that become rigid and predictable have difficulty adapting to new challenges. The more a team is set in its ways the more it will have trouble facing new challenges.
Grant ends his article reflecting that it today’s rapidly changing world, it is rare that teams reach this point.