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Virtually no one will tell you teamwork isn't important when it comes to an organization achieving its goals. Even cynics understand that groups of people willing to put their individual interests aside for the good of the team will outperform those who do not.
Yet after a team succeeds, something often happens that suggests many of us are discounting the real power of teamwork. A great example plays out in the world of professional sports.
With the football season just behind us, perhaps a hypothetical example from the NFL would make a good case study. Imagine a team wins the Super Bowl with less talent than many of the teams it defeated along the way. This is not all that uncommon in sports—the San Francisco Giants of this past baseball season and the New England Patriots of recent years come to mind. When this happens, television announcers, journalists, coaches, and sports executives rave about the amazing culture of teamwork that existed and how it allowed the team to beat the odds.
But then something strange happens during the offseason. As soon as the free-agent market opens and executives try to sign new players or make trades with other organizations, a premium is placed on athletes who played for the championship team. General managers are suddenly willing to bid higher to pry away a linebacker or wide receiver from the Super Bowl team, as though that player is now more valuable. All too often, those same general managers find themselves disappointed the following season when the new recruit doesn't do for his new team what he apparently did for his old one.
Of course, the explanation for this is obvious: The culture of teamwork that the Super Bowl champ created made its players much more effective than they would have been on other teams. As a result, the collective achievement of the team exceeded what anyone could have predicted based on an individual analysis of talent.
Now, if we really believed in the power of that team culture, we would know that taking someone off that team and putting the person in a new organization is going to have a profound impact on his or her performance. And so the question is, do those executives really believe what they said about teamwork and somehow forget it in their desire to find new players, or do they just give lip service to teamwork and deep down inside believe it all comes down to talent?
This same phenomenon exists in business. Companies spend a lot of time and energy trying to acquire talent from successful organizations, believing that by doing so, they'll improve the performance of their own. In most situations, people from great companies aren't easy to lure away from healthy, successful organizations, and so they command higher salaries. Unfortunately, as with the NFL, the return on investment rarely equals what the acquiring company hoped.
What's the practical lesson for companies trying to improve? They should start by spending more of their time and effort creating a culture of teamwork than looking for outside talent. The rewards for doing so are enormous. For starters, they'll get even more from the employees they already value, and probably uncover hidden stars already in their midst. Remember, great football teams birth superstars from the ranks of ordinary players who happen to have extraordinary attitudes. Beyond that, companies that create true team environments turn into places where other team-oriented players want to work. Great football teams attract players tired of working for selfish, dysfunctional teams, and in many cases they even accept less money to have that opportunity.
To improve, perhaps companies should ask themselves whether they truly believe that teamwork makes for a strategic advantage, and that teamwork, more than sheer talent, brings about lasting success.