xxxvii) Virtuoso Teams



. Sometimes you need stars, or elite experts, in your team to create a period of competitive edge. Examples include

- a group of elite scientists who came together under project "Manhattan" to develop the atomic bomb for the USA during World War 2

- the whiz kids (10 former US Air Force officers recruited in 1946 en masse by Ford to bring the company back from the doldrums)

- the elite team who wrote "West Side Story"consisted of Jerome Robbins (classical ballet choreographer), Leonard Bernstein (a dynamic force in classical music composition and conducting), Arthur Laurents (successful screenwriter) and Stephen Sondheim (lyricist)

- Microsoft's Xbox team which designed a gaming platform that competed successfully with Sony PlayStation 2

. Virtuoso teams comprise

"...experts in their particular field and are specially convened for ambitious projects. Their work style has a frenetic rhythm. They emanate a discernible energy. They are unique in the ambitiousness of their goals, the intensity of their conversations, the degree of their esprit, and the extraordinary results they deliver..."

Bill Fischer et al, 2005

. Generally highly talented people have a potential to create a disproportionate amount of value. These people develop new medicines, electronic games, marketing strategies, groundbreaking products/services, etc

. Some other characteristics of these people include

- they are more concerned about their rating with professional peers rather than with their bosses

- they can be dysfunctional and very destructive

- have a competitive rather than a co-operative relationship with their colleagues so that information-hoarding occurs. They suffer from knowledge-is-power syndrome and seldom share their knowledge or contribute to knowledge management systems

- they like to break rules and they prefer a relative absence of rules

- tend to trivialise the importance of non-technical people

- oversensitive about the projects they work on. In fact, many will never agree to kill projects that are not leading anywhere.

- they are never happy about review/evaluation processes on their projects

. Furthermore, the risks (such as burnout, lure of new challenges and attitudes including being temperamental, egocentric and difficult to work with) mean that many organisations keep well clear of forming virtuoso teams, ie they are too much trouble. Especially as these teams of elite experts will not play by the team's rules.

"...Managing exceptionally gifted no easy task..."
Christopher Joye 2019a

Hedge funds with their portfolio managers, quants, analysts, etc are another example of organisations needing to manage exceptionally gifted individuals.

"... If there is one constant across the best is idiosyncrasy: it requires a special fusion of analysis, intuition, conviction and belligerence to bet against the collective might of markets and consistently prevail over the long term......if they are not outright oddbods, then they definitely possess an insatiable curiosity, dogged tenacity and a relentless faith that sets him apart......the challenge of any fund to institutionalise their alphas which, even in its origin in the capricious human condition, is inherently difficult. One by building a team of talent around you that empowers, perpetuates and amplifies that alpha..."
Christopher Joye 2019a

"...all roads lead to personalities. It is easy to recruit academically exceptional staff. It is harder to identify those who can seamlessly subordinate their egos to the team's mission, render consistently actionable insights, and positively contribute to the welfare of their colleagues..."
Christopher Joye 2019a

. In fact, virtuoso teams are different from traditional teams along every dimension - from how they recruit members to the way they enforce their processes, the expectations they hold and the results they produce.

"... unlike traditional teams- which are typically made up of whoever's available, regardless of talent - virtuoso teams consist of star performers who are hand-picked. These teams are intense and intimate, and they work best when members are forced together in cramped spaces under strict time constraints. They assume that their customers are every bit as smart and sophisticated as they are, so they don't cater to a stereotypical average..."

Bill Fischer et al, 2005

. The table below shows some of the differences

Traditional teams

Virtuoso Teams

Choose members for availability and assign them according to past experience with the problem; fill in the team as needed; emphasise the collective; repress individual egos; encourage members to get along; choose a solution based on consensus

Choose members for their skills; hire only those with best skills, regardless of familiarity with the problem; recruit specialists; emphasise the individual; celebrate egos and elicit the best from each member; encourage competition and solo performances; choose a solution based on merit

Ensure efficiency trumps creativity; focus on tasks; complete critical tasks on time; get the project done on time; allow communication via e-mail, phone and weekly meetings; encourage polite conversations

Ensure creativity trumps efficiency; focus on ideas; generate a frequent and rich flow of ideas among the team members; find and express the breakthrough idea on time; work together and intensively; force members into close proximity; force members to work together at a fast pace; force direct dialogue without sparing feelings

Address the average customer; attempt to reach the broadest base; appeal to the average; base decisions on established market knowledge; affirm common stereotypes

Address the sophisticated customer; attempt to surprise customers by stretching their expectations; defy established market knowledge; reject stereotypes

. In virtuoso teams, members are not necessarily nice to each other. There is a fierce desire for "one-upmanship"; interpersonal conflict is intense, ie members engage in "nasty tugs-of-wars" with each other

. The traditional teams work under the concept of "we and us", ie team consensus and constraints on individual freedom. Team harmony is important; conviviality compensates for any absent of talent. This produces teams with great attitudes and happy members but not necessarily great results. On the other hand, virtuoso teams value individual breakthroughs over team consensus. As the project progresses

"...the members break through their own egocentrism and morph into a powerful team with a shared identity......a delicate balance between stroking the egos of the elite and focusing them on the task at hand......eventually, each team member understood if the team failed, he would fail too......the team transformed itself from a collection of egocentric individuals into one great virtuoso teams, individual players energised each other with frequent, intense, face-to-face conversations, often held in cramped spaces for long periods of time. The usual round of e-mails, phone calls and occasional meetings just don't cut it. When virtuoso teams are in action, impassioned dialogue becomes the critical driver of performance, not the work itself. The inescapable physical proximity of the team members ensures that the right messages get to the right people....As a result, virtuoso teams operate at pace that is many times the speed of the normal teams......the worst thing you can do to highly talented, independent people is to constrain their expressiveness; you have to trust and encourage their talents. At the same time, however, a team made up of these individuals must meet strict goals and deadlines. Balancing the virtuoso's needs for individual attention and intellectual freedom with the uncompromising demands and timelines of a high-stakes project requires unusual skills. One way to manage a virtuoso team is to be a rigid - even villainous- perfectionist......other leaders of virtuoso teams take the opposite tack: they strive for excellence by fostering a galloping sense of intellectual and creative freedom in individuals and in the group as the whole......encouraged creative the brainstorming maelstrom, ownership of the ideas was difficult to pinpoint. This created a sense of mutual respect and unity in the group; the elite felt they belonged to something bigger than themselves......if you want to stand out above mediocrity......don't hesitate to assemble the very best and let their egos soar. Encourage intense dialogue - and then watch as the sparks fly. If you allow the most brilliant minds in your organisation to collide and create, the result will be true excellence..."

Bill Fischer et al, 2005

(source: Bill Fischer et al, 2005)


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