Rock & roll teams

The hero myth, the notion that great accomplishments are achieved by superstar geniuses working alone, is an alluring but dangerous fantasy in business. Look no further than rock & roll to slay that chimera.

In the world of rock—as in mainstream business—it’s the TEAM that gets things done.

First, there’s the phenomenon of the rock band that has revolutionized popular music—from the Beatles to the Grateful Dead to U2 and beyond. But the great achievements of the solo artist as well—from Presley to Dylan to Jackson to Prince, etc.—are enabled by a team of collaborators, including studio and touring musicians, record producers, sound engineers, a road crew, and full array of business managers, booking agents, lawyers, and accountants. Behind the success of any rock & roll artist (band or solo star) is a team—in fact, a team of coordinated teams.

So…if you want to build creative teams in your organization, study the great rock artists, as we do on these cyberpages. Especially if you want teams that are innovative, passionate, ambitious, result-focused, and independent thinking.

But there are those in business who downplay the importance of teams at all and still subscribe to the myth of the individual hero. As Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman pointed out in their book, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration: “We cling to the myth of the Lone Ranger, the romantic idea that great things are usually accomplished by a larger-than-life individual working alone.”

But the sun may finally be setting on that illusion. Tom Kelley in The Art of Innovation argues:

We believe that the myth of the lone genius can actually hamper a company’s efforts in innovation and creativity. After close encounters with dozens of real-life inventors, I have to report that most of them don’t have a lot to teach us about applying creative process to business...We’ve found that loners are so caught up in their idea that they are reluctant to let it go, much less allow it to be experimented with and improved upon. They think more like individuals than team members. And unfortunately their projects suffer.

Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker article, “The Talent Myth,” concurs:

In the modern corporation, the system is considered only as strong as its stars…[The McKinseys and Enrons] believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems. In a way, that’s understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.

In business, “system” is just a name for how a team—or a team of coordinated teams—works together.

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  1. Agreed, John. As an independent consultant who often remains locked up in my palace simmering in my own thoughts for days as I attempt to solve all of the world's problems, I welcome and am quite relieved when I have someone to collaborate with, bounce my ideas off of and challenge my thinking. I couldn't do my job alone and I'm glad I don't have to.

  2. John – thank you – this is one of my pet subjects. In every team I played in during my long soccer career it was always the TEAM that got the result. We always had a captain – sometimes the captain was important – when we needed digging out of a hole for instance - but most of the time the captain was just another player. In my business career the best leaders I meet are humble, caring people who don’t enjoy the limelight and many don’t even recognise themselves as a leader. The worst leaders I see are those who are power mad, pretentious and arrogant at best and downright dangerous at worst. Those who clearly have no emotional feeling for team members are bad leaders in my opinion. Those who measure their success by bottom line, money and numbers rather than by how they made team members feel about the place and the job are also poor leaders in my book. I also think the team role is now much different than a few decades ago because so many people in so m nay teams have equal knowledge because knowledge is now so easily accessible to all through the internet and thus anyone arrogant enough to say they are superior to other team members needs to show they have some special knowledge that the rest of us mere mortals can’t access.

    In a nutshell the best leaders are people orientated not number orientated – they GENUINELY care about their people and show it.

  3. Thanks for checking in, Darci.
    Anonymous: many traditional bosses would agree with your boss. But they're a dying species. RIP.
    Amen, Trevor.

  4. For sure, the 'people bit' and working as part of a team is absolutely key but I think at the same time there's a risk that we miss the fact that it needs a hard edge of accountability and results have to be achieved else there won't be jobs to do much longer.

    It's like the talent shows you see where three judges say, "Great dancing, nice arrangement of the song, great guitar solo, well done" (all to whoops and hollering from the audience) and the fourth points out that the singer kept going flat and has a limited range that missed every high note (this to boos and catcalls from the audience).

    We sometimes seem to be creating a society in which we're only allowed to praise the good bits and where constructive criticism and an explicit recognition of someone's weaknesses is seen as unfairly damning them. Tosh, says MJF!

    In my example above, I doubt the band would last long with a dodgy singer. But they could recognise the singer's limited range, tailor their material to fit and develop a successful act around it - provided it was put to the singer constructively and he didn't throw a hissy fit at being critiqued and stomp out. (BTW, you could argue U2 have done this: Bono isn't technically the best singer in the world but I couldn't see U2 with any other singer out front.)

    By all means, play to people's strengths and don't worry too much about ironing out every perceived weak point. But as boss and subordinate, you've got to be frank and realistic about what those strong and weak points are - because if you aren't, the team will also suffer.

  5. Mark, I wouldn’t conflate your sensible assertion that we need accountability for results with my assertion that teams (not individual heroes) are responsible for most business successes. Teams, no less than individuals, should be held to account for their successes and failures—especially when they have explicitly signed onto a set of objectives. And good teams function best through reviews and feedback from their peers (rather than from their “superiors”) which is practiced by the smarter organizations like Whole Foods and WL Gore.

    It’s interesting that accountability is so often used in a context of blame. But to account for our results is simply to explain the cause of them as best we can determine. And if they are excellent results we need to account for those too! Either way, we can learn something so that in the future we can repeat (or improve on) the desired results and not repeat the undesired results.

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