The Importance of Working With “A”Players

Stop me if this sounds familiar. There is a person who toils alone for years in relative obscurity before finally cracking the code to become a hero. The myth of the lone genius. It’s the stuff of Disney movies.

Of course, we all have moments when we’re alone and something suddenly clicks. We’d do well to remember, though, that in those moments, we are not as independent as we like to think. The people we surround ourselves with matter.

In part, because we tell ourselves the story of the lone genius, we under-appreciate the role of a team. Sure, the individual matters, no doubt. However, the individual contributions are supercharged by the team around them.

We operate in a world where it’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything great as an individual.  When you think about it, you’re the product of an education system, a healthcare system, luck, roads, the internet and so much more. You may be smart but you’re not self-made. And at work, most important achievements require a team of people working together.

The leader’s job is to get the team right. Getting the team right means that people are better as a group than as individuals. Now this is important.  Step back and think about that for a second — the right teams make every individual better than they would be on their own.

Another way to think about this is in terms of energy. If you have 12 people on a team and they each have 10 units of energy, you would expect to get 120 units of output. That’s what an average team will do. Worse teams will do worse. A great team will take the same inputs and get a non-linear outcome. The result won’t be 120; it’ll be 360.No matter where you’re going, great teams will get you there multiples faster than average teams.

Here is a quote by Steve Jobs on the importance of assembling “A” players.

I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which [the ratio of] “average” to “best” is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver, versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile; what’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; maybe even 100:1. Very few things in life are like this, but what I was lucky enough to spend my life doing, which is software, is like this. So I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for “B” and “C” players, but really going for the “A” players. And I found something… I found that when you get enough “A” players together, when you go through the incredible work to find these “A” players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with “B” and “C” players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire “A” players. So you build these pockets of “A” players and it just propagates.

Building a team is more complicated than collecting talent1. I once tried to solve a problem by putting a bunch of PhDs’ in a room. While comments like that sounded good and got me a lot of projects above my level, they were rarely effective at delivering actual results.

Statements like “let’s assemble a multidisciplinary team of incredible people” are gold in meetings if you work for an organization. These statements sound intelligent. They are hard to argue with. And, most importantly, they also have no accountability built in, and they are easy to wiggle out of. If things don’t work out, who can fault a plan that meant putting smart people in a room.

Well … I can. It’s a stupid plan.

The combination of individual intelligence does not make for group intelligence. Thinking about this in the context of the Jobs quote above, “A” players provide a lot more than raw intellectual horsepower. Among other things, they also bring drive, integrity, and an ability to make others better.  “A” players want to work with other “A” players. Accepting that statement doesn’t mean they’re all “the best”.  

In my experience solving difficult problems, the best talent available rarely led to the best solutions. You needed the best team. And the best team meant you had to exercise judgment and think about the problem. While there was often one individual with the idea that ultimately solved the problem, it wouldn’t have happened without the team.  The ideas others spark in us are more than we can spark in ourselves.

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    A play on a quote by Bill Belichick