The best teams? Veterans and newbies together

2 minute read

Success is partially derived from relationships with other people, through whom they get access to expertise and capabilities beyond themselves.

The success of a musical production depends on the team, rather than individual.

— B. Uzzi, J. Spiro (2007) Collaboration and Creativity

While society keeps celebrating the lone genius idea – the biased thinking where the attribution of success is given to individuals – it’s in fact the team the real foundation of success. Even when we talk about individuals instead of companies, these individuals are always interconnected to a network of people that allow them to succeed in what they do.

The Broadway Law of Teams

From the same study we also get another interesting detail about teams:

“The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.”

— J. Lehrer (2012) Groupthink and Uzzi, Spiro (2005 paper)

The paper gets very in depth about how the network is structures, however the highlight above is a good summary of one of the results:

  • groups that aren’t part of a tight network are too isolated to benefit from it.
  • being too central to the network is a problem because ideas gets too homogeneous.

The title is a bit misleading, in the sense that seems correlating expertise, but the research is more in terms of being a “veteran” inside the network (i.e. well connected) more than in terms of skills. Even if, clearly, more experience on the field is likely correlated with connections that were built over time.

Internal Team Friction

Another way to think about how teams mix work better is using the concept of friction:

  • Low friction — people know each other well, too well. They share ideas and perspectives. They think very similar. Working together is very easy, but also there’s little challenge due to the lack of different perspectives.
  • High friction — people think too differently. The goals are different, the ideas are different, the vision is different. They want to do things that are too far away, and finding common ground is hard if not impossible. Working together is hard because everything is a heated discussion.

Even this perspective highlights why mixed teams are more effective: they are in the sweet spot where ideas are different enough to be highly creative and challenging for each other, but not too much to become impossible to work together.

This is a principle I often use to assess teams and groups, especially startups where there’s little margin for new people to come in or shuffle.

The best teams are thus the ones that are diverse enough, well integrated, and with low friction.

Thanks to the Make Meaningful Work group.