Harvard Business Review

What the Colts Can Teach Us About Team Building


Posted on Harvard Business Review: November 17, 2011 1:50 PM

The Indianapolis Colts are 0-10.

For the last nine seasons, the Colts have made the Playoffs. Under the leadership of their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Peyton Manning, they won the Super Bowl in 2007 and lost one in 2010. This team has been a perennial contender in the League. From the coaching crew to the players, people have considered the Colts a solid and balanced ball club. And yet, they’ve lost ten games and won none this season in the National Football League (NFL).

This season, something happened. Their four-time MVP quarterback had neck surgery and has not played a game in the regular season. It turns out that without him, this solid team is not really a stellar one. They have already been eliminated from 2011 Playoff contention, and the main remaining goal for them is to perhaps avoid finishing 0-16. It turns out that the Colts are a team built around one person, and the team is collapsing because that man is not working. They suffered a 62-7 defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Saints this October. What’s happening to the Colts happened to the Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan left the franchise. The New England Patriots had a similar experience in 2008 when Tom Brady was injured in the season opener and the NFL Team of The Decade missed the Playoffs. All of these teams suffered because they relied too heavily on one lone star.

This “lone star” model in teams doesn’t just apply to sports clubs. It happens in companies all the time, as most are structured in similar ways. And yet, discovering and nurturing talent is vital for success in any organization. No matter how good a strategy is, at the end of the day, talent will be needed to execute it. Great companies need to spend time and resources to develop and reward talent.

Simply put, plenty of corporations are using this model of identifying top performers and surrounding them with largely average colleagues, trusting that the top talent’s sheer energy will sustain the team. Resources are hard to come by, and most times, this type of model could be an effective cost containment strategy, since it’s often difficult to keep top minds working together. It’s common to see a law firm or an investment bank lose focus because of the departure of one key partner. It’s also common in the high tech industry where teams are built around a few key players. Whenver the legends depart, businesses go into crises. Think of Apple after Steve Jobs was exiled!

In the knowledge economy, one of the most important risks companies must manage is the one related to team building. A strong team is not the one where a single person disproportionally influences the team’s results. We treasure the project champion and team leaders, but if we want business continuity, there must be structures in place to ensure that the other members are ready to lead if the commander is not available. Every organization must examine its continuity management, especially startups and SMEs, and simulate what can happen if that lone star in the team decides to leave. Can the company continue to exist? Mr. Manning is not playing and the Colts have had their first losing season in a decade.

If a company can’t function without its lone star, it could be time to break that power silo and put others in positions to fail or succeed. It’s imperative that the overall performance of the lone star is measured not just by job performance, but also by how he or she discovers and nurtures those who could become backups when necessary. When a board consistently fails to look inside and promote talent when a CEO departs, it simply means that they have a lone star approach. Increasingly, those companies — such as AMD and HP — are not examples of excellent corporate leadership. Managing the risk that results from imperfect teams is very strategic for any knowledge company, as competition has become more fierce and time to react has become shorter. Is your company’s future in the hands of a lone star? What are you doing to ensure a deeper bench on your own team?

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