Item: In January, the Boston Celtics basketball star Rajon Rondo went down with a blown knee, which ended his season. Lacking their marquee player “these Celtics are done”, wrote a Fox Sports columnist. But the Celtics surprised everyone, winning their next six games and edging back into the Eastern Division playoff hunt.
Item: Sales managers worldwide grapple with a common problem, no matter the product or industry. What is the right balance between individual and team bonus incentives? Get it wrong, and you’ll lose your stars or demoralise your team—or both.
These are just two observations from different fields. But I suggest a pattern, or at least a hint of one. Teams matter—greatly. Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about talent recruitment and retention. But we don’t think as much about teams, team dynamics and teamwork. We should.
What prevents us from thinking about teams within our companies? Part of the problem is that we focus on talent to the exclusion of how talent will improve team performance. The injury of Boston’s Rondo is not an anomaly. The Golden State Warriors perform better when their big centre, Andrew Bogut, is out of the lineup. The Los Angeles Lakers are loaded with such talent as Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. But the team’s performance is abysmal: It struggles to win half their games.
Another way by which teams underperform is that their managers can think too big. Yes, we’re supposed to think big, about economies of scale and so forth. But the real trick to managing large teams of people is to break them down. Don’t think big; think small. Really small. Imagine your large team as Lego blocks of two, three, four and five—microteams no bigger than rock bands or basketball teams.
The late Steve Jobs was justly celebrated for his individual genius. But he was particularly good at building small teams at the core of his companies. Apple was founded by a pair—Jobs and Steve Wozniak. But the latter-day Apple under Jobs (1997–2011) had a trio at its core: Jobs as CEO, Tim Cook as operations guru and Jony Ive as chief designer. Apple had other frontline executives, all supremely competent. But Jobs never made the mistake of exceeding his span.
Apple is not alone. The Silicon Valley writer (and former Forbes ASAP editor) Mike Malone is writing a book on Intel’s history, entitled Trinity. Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore were the powerful pair who started Intel in 1968, but it was a trio who gave it the velocity to conquer the chip world. “Moore wanted to be a scientist,” Malone says. “Noyce was too much the charismatic politician, wanting to please everyone. Intel needed an ass-kicker to get things done. That was Andy Grove.”
Silicon Valley abounds in powerful pairs who made bigger successes with the addition of a third. Sometimes it’s the Grove whip-cracker—Tim Cook played that role at Apple, which gave Jobs and Ive space to think about product design. Other times, it’s a mentor. Eric Schmidt was just shy of 50 when he went to Google and helped calm the waters of a company run by its mercurial young founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Tom Georgens, CEO of the $6 billion computer-storage supplier NetApp, looks to its founding technology guru, Dave Hitz, and former president Tom Mendoza to keep its entrepreneurial roots solid as it heads toward $10 billion in sales.
A new discipline called talent analytics is changing how we recruit, train and retain our talent. Best Buy, the retail chain that’s trying to turn itself around, has discovered a big financial advantage in having more-engaged employees. True enough, but turning talent into motivated teams still remains an art.
Rich Karlgaard is the publisher at Forbes
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(This story appears in the 19 April, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)