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Virtuoso Teams

The Idea in Brief

Imagine these high-stakes scenarios: Your company must enter an untested new market. Or reorganize to take advantage of a new IT platform. Or avert a public relations crisis brought on by product tampering. To manage such feats, you need virtuoso teams--groups of top experts in their fields.

But superstars are notorious for being temperamental and egocentric. You worry that forcing a group of them to work together will ignite a fatal explosion. So you're tempted to settle for an ordinary project team instead.

Don't do it. Ordinary teams may play nice, but they produce results as unremarkable as themselves. Assemble your virtuoso team--and manage it with counterintuitive strategies, advise Fischer and Boynton.

For example, instead of emphasizing the collective, celebrate individual egos by creating opportunities for solo performances. Then build group ego by encouraging a single-minded focus on the goal. And foster impassioned, direct dialogue that doesn't spare feelings. In the resulting inferno, your team's members will forge their most brilliant ideas.

The Idea in Practice

Fischer and Boynton suggest these principles for leading a virtuoso team:

Assemble the stars. Hire only members with the best skills, even if they have little experience with the problem at hand.

After investing heavily in a site promising a big oil find, Norsk Hydro discovered the site was dry. Team leader Kjell Sunde assembled a virtuoso team to avert an investor-relations crisis. The team included the best technical people from across the company. Its goal: Analyze reams of data, pinpoint what went wrong, and convince stakeholders such an outcome wouldn't occur again.

Build the group ego. As your team's project progresses, help stars break through their egocentrism and morph into a powerful, unified team with a shared identity.

Sunde initially broke with Norsk Hydro's consensus-driven culture by publicly celebrating his team members and putting them squarely in the spotlight. He established a star mentality by nicknaming them the "A-team." Then he built the team's group ego by protecting members from intrusive scrutiny from above, giving them unlimited access to resources, and treating their conclusions as definitive.

Make work a contact sport. Use face-to-face conversations in designated spaces to foster impassioned dialogue.

Sunde established a dedicated team room and filled it with computer workstations and other scientific and communications equipment. The space functioned as a workroom and meeting place for candid, intense discussions that let members bounce ideas off each other.

Respect the customer's intelligence. Foster the belief that your team's customers want more, not less. You'll encourage them to deliver solutions consistent with this higher perception.

For Norsk Hydro's A-team, "customers" were equity market analysts. The team's job was to manage the market's reaction to news of the dry site. If its explanation was slapdash or incomplete, the company's market value would nosedive. The team provided thoughtful explanations that left market analysts impressed with the firm's ability to respond convincingly and quickly to market concerns. The company received kudos in the press and was spared serious financial erosion.

Herd the cats. Use time management strategies to balance team members' needs for individual attention and intellectual freedom with the uncompromising demands and time lines of your high-stakes project.

Sunde forced A-team members to keep presentations to 15 minutes. That encouraged members to use this allotment to maximum effect and discouraged aggressive members from imposing their viewpoints on others. The strong adherence to time "made everyone aware they had to dance to the same rhythm."

Copyright 2007 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Further Reading


How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight

Harvard Business Review

November 2000

by Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy, and L.J. Bourgeois III

These authors reinforce the importance of impassioned debate to the success of virtuoso teams. Handled constructively, such debate helps your team make high-stakes decisions and move quickly despite uncertainty and intense pressure. But the key to managing heated discussions is preventing them from taking a personal turn. Tactics for doing this include multiplying the alternatives under discussion. As your team weighs a decision, consider four or five options simultaneously--even some you don't support. This diffuses conflict by preventing teams from polarizing around just two possibilities. For example, executives at one struggling company brainstormed alternative solutions that included entering a new market and even selling the company.

How to Keep A Players Productive

Harvard Business Review

September 2006

by Steven Berglas

Berglas affirms that many A players on virtuoso teams harbor hidden insecurities and have an unconscious need to receive kudos and appreciation. To get the most from your stars, you have to manage these realities. Some suggestions: 1) Let A players triumph, as long as their achievements support the team's overall goal. 2) Provide personalized, authentic praise--often. 3) Put a limit on performance expectations, so your stars don't burn out by constantly delivering over-the-top performance. 4) Make them play nice with junior colleagues whom they may tend to disdain. For example, by asking them to mentor these colleagues, you help your A players retain a sense of superiority while also positioning them to share their expertise.

Lift Outs: How to Acquire a High-Functioning Team

Harvard Business Review

December 2006

by Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams

One way to assemble a virtuoso team is to hire an intact one from outside. Members won't need time to get acquainted or establish shared values, mutual accountability, or group norms. However, a failed "lift out" can lead to loss of money, opportunity, credibility, and native talent. To avoid these outcomes, meticulously manage the process. For example, define your business goals and strategies for a proposed lift out. Discuss the potential move with other members of your group to assess their interest level and prepare them for the change. And give the new team's leader access to your company's senior executives--it's a crucial factor in a lift out's success.

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