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Virtuoso Teams – Lessons from teams that changed their worlds
By Andy Boynton and Bill Fischer
July 2005 FT Prentice Hall £20; Jan 2006 $25.99

In the case study hell of the business book world, the same corporate names keep cropping up: Dell, Southwest Airlines, Cemex, Swatch. But the opening pages of this book contain the following unusual confession:

“We found lots of examples [of virtuoso teams] in the firms that we worked with, yet almost always they were reluctant to tell their stories for publication because of modesty, internal politics and even jealousy.”

Not everyone will find that explanation plausible. But let it go – for the momentthe moment. Because this alleged lack of co-operation has forced the authors to cast their net wider, and offer a range of examples that is far more inspiring than the usual retelling of what Michael Dell did or did not do in his college dormitory.

Andy Boynton, dean of the Carroll school of management in Boston, in the US, and Bill Fischer, professor of technology management at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, look to the arts, sciences, and to the great “Amundsen versus Scott” race to the South Pole to illustrate their concept of the “virtuoso team”. Only one actual business, Norsk Hydro, gets a look-in.

What a relief. And what a pleasure to read, for example, about the frenetic team of writers assembled by the NBC television network in the 1950s that was to create Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows.

That team, containing such talent as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart, was packed with ability – and egos to match. It was “like going to work every day of the week inside a Marx brothers movie”, Gelbart observed. Ideas flew across the writers’ room at a mercurial rate, jokes polished and perfected as they went along. Each week 90 minutes of new material was created, and got its first and only test-run live, on national television, in front of 20m people.

Neil Simon, who dramatised the experience in his play “Laughter on the 23rd floor”, once explained: “I went home to watch the shows and I laughed and laughed, and my wife says, ‘That’s your joke, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘I dunno.’ We never knew. They all came so fast.”

But what made this a virtuoso team? Not just the talent, but the way it was led. “This was a team with incredible loyalty to its leader”, the authors say, “not because these individual all-stars were predisposed to respect authority – quite the contrary – but because Sid Caesar paid them the ultimate professional compliment: he listened to them; he believed in them; and he trusted them; over and over again.”

Roald Amundsen was mocked when he spent five months with Arctic fishermen in an attempt to learn how to “live off the land” in the most extreme of climates. Sophisticated explorers based in the cities could not see what he might pick up from these simple, private people.

“There is nobody so stupid,” Amundsen said, “that he does not have something sensible to say.”

Years later Amundsen drew on his experiences gained with the Arctic skippers, and also with Eskimo communities, to help guide his successful conquest of the South Pole. His talented team based its approach on a ruthless attention to detail. While the Norwegian group lived off the land and preserved their energies, Scott and his comrades perished in the Antarctic snow.

Boynton and Fischer also cite the Manhattan project of the 1940s, when a team of scientists built the atomic bomb, and Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park “invention factory”, as examples of virtuoso teams in action. The teams behind the Leonard Bernstein musical West Side Story, and Miles Davis’s various jazz combinations, are also included as archetypal virtuoso ensembles. Only Norsk Hydro’s crisis management of a failed oil drilling introduces the everyday business world into these pages.

So what characterises a virtuoso team, and how do you encourage their growth in your business? Virtuoso teams are assembled specifically to achieve radical change, the authors say, which stretches both themselves and their audience (or customers). No compromise is made on talent: only the best person in each position will do.

The leader of a virtuoso team concentrates on releasing each individual’s ability, and does not worry about bruised egos or hurt feelings. No artificial, egalitarian “team spirit” is created. People are picked for their unique gifts and ability to perform.

But the mysterious non-appearance in this book of genuine corporate examples of virtuoso teams raises a question. Could it be that, however impressive some corporate teams may be, none comes even close to the sort of exceptional performance of Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman, of Roald Amundsen and his team, of Lenny Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, of Mel Brooks and Neil Simon?

In the closing chapter we receive an answer of sorts. There the authors offer a development tool called DeepDive™, which they say “can help any manager in any type of organisation, even if they have no hope of creating true virtuoso teams”. And what does DeepDive ™ consist of? Essentially it is a high-quality, facilitated brainstorming exercise.

So in the end this book begins to feel uncomfortably like a “bait and switch” operation: the authors describe exceptional teams that achieved heroic feats, but then remind the readers that they will probably never approach these levels. And, by the way, have they considered using a “new” methodology?

It is impossible for managers to repeat the achievements of Bernstein, Oppenheimer, Brooks and Allen. The reason the authors do not offer equivalent virtuoso examples from the corporate world is this book’s dirty little secret: they just do not exist. Still, the case studies are excellent.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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