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Are your teams at work built for soccer or basketball?

I figured the holiday was a good time as any to try to revive the blogging habit.. again. :-)

I devoured the Revisionist History podcast over a couple of weeks of driving last month (highly recommended!) One of the analogies Gladwell made stuck with me though, especially since I was thinking about team dynamics at the time.

Caveat emptor: Gladwell simplifies and glosses over quite a bit in making his point - he does this a lot; but I understand why he needs to. Nuance makes the intellectual candy harder to digest.

He talks about talent in the context of basketball and soccer. He cites research which shows that to win the most basketball games it completely makes sense to just focus on getting the best player(s) you can. Conversely, to win the most soccer games your best shot is to have the fewest weaker players on the pitch. If you follow both sports, this'll seem intuitively right to you. The dynamics of the game - on the margin - support one strategy over the other.

He goes on to make the argument that despite knowing this, soccer team owners do the suboptimal thing and are infatuated with getting stars and prioritize it over bolstering their roster overall. There are of course business reasons to do this, but anyway... that's a whole different post. You can read more about Gladwell's argument in the context of education here.

But it got me thinking about what approach made the best sense in the context of teams at work - do you optimize for getting the absolute best people on your team ("the stars") or ensuring that you have the best team overall (i.e. make sure your weakest team member is still pretty good and plays well in the overall picture)? Most teams and companies, of course, try to do both to some extent. However, teams, and the people that try to build them, definitely tend to favor one philosophy over the other - even subconsciously. It affects how and whom they recruit, retain and reward.

I realized as I thought through past teams I've been on that I've seen both sides of this. I also realized there really isn't a perfect answer - it depends on the problem you're working on, the size of the team, the team itself and the situation you and the company/org you're part of are in.

But I still like the analogy - think explicitly about what game you're optimizing for while putting your team together. Does it look more like soccer (few chances to actually score and win; can't afford mistakes; requires everyone working together well and waiting for openings) or basketball (a transcendent talent(s) can cover other weaknesses)?


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