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Virtuoso Teams Essay

Bill Fischer is Professor of Innovation Management. He began his work-life as an apprentice electrician in the New York City building trades and his professional life as a development engineer in the steel industry. He served for two years as a lieutenant in the US Army Corps of Engineers; and has also worked with the World Health Organization for more than fifteen years on strengthening research and development institutes in developing countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Bill also was the Executive President and Dean of the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), in Shanghai. Bill writes a blog entitled “The Ideas Business” for Forbes.com and has recently author two books relating to innovation: Virtuoso Teams in 2005, and The Idea Hunter, in 2011 [both co-authored by Andy Boynton].

Andy Boynton is Dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, one of the world’s leading business schools, the author of several books and co-creator of DeepDive™, the world’s leading methodology for helping executives harness the power of teams to significantly improve problem-solving speed, innovation and results. Boynton was a professor of strategy at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland for 10 years. Boynton has recently launched new research projects to explore how distinguished experts from a variety of knowledge-domains work with ideas to achieve professional success and improve their effectiveness in social networks.

His latest book, The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make them Happen (Jossey-Bass), is based on this research and is co-authored with Bill Fischer and William Bole. A virtuoso (from Italian virtuoso, Latin virtus meaning: skill, manliness, excellence) is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in the fine arts, at singing or playing a musical instrument. The term evolved with time, simultaneously broadening and narrowing in scope as interpretations went in and out of fashion and debates unravel. What words characterizes them best?

This article is about these kind of teams which are so different from the ordinary, average 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 create 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, 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.”

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