Friday, June 13, 2014 at 1am

Too Much Talent Taints World Cup Teams According to INSEAD: MBA News

Too Much Talent Taints World Cup Teams According to INSEAD: MBA News main image

With the NBA Finals in full flow and the World Cup kicking off in Brazil, those who are not interested in sports may well want to hide in a cave for the next few weeks. For those who are fans of football (soccer) and basketball, there are few better feelings – short of actually winning – than going into a major tournament with a stellar line-up of individual talents.

However, if that’s the team you’re taking into the World Cup, NBA Finals or other competition (any Belgians reading?) then bad news from INSEAD, where research led by Professor Roderick Swaab shows that a team possessed of too many talents may actually suffer as a consequence.

“Most people believe that the relationship between talent and team performance is linear – the more their team is packed with talent, the better they will do,” explains Swaab. “Yet our latest research documenting a ‘too-much-talent effect’, reveals that for teams requiring high levels of interdependence, like soccer and basketball, talent facilitates team performance… but only up to a point. Beyond this point, the benefits of adding more top talent will decrease and eventually hurt the team performance because they fail to coordinate their actions.”

It is more important for sides competing in the World Cup or NBA Finals, the research reveals, to be able to play as a team – incorporating those whose talent may be less stratospheric, but can do a job for the good of the team. A telling example might be found in this season’s Spain’s La Ligua football league, in which a relatively unglamorous but tightly functioning Atlético Madrid triumphed over the expensively assembled Real Madrid and the celebrated Barcelona.

At the time of writing, it seems as if this is being borne out in the NBA Finals, with San Antonio Spurs enjoying a comfortable lead of three games to one over Miami Heat’s more star studded cast.

INSEAD’s research was conducted using the qualification period for the current World Cup (2010-2014) and every season between 2002 and 2012 in the NBA as the sample. Talents were defined using individual elite club affiliations in soccer and estimated wins added in basketball, and detailed statistics were made available to the team of researchers. They also found in more individualistic sports like baseball, there was no such thing as too much talent.

Business talent – could World Cup lessons be applied?

This being INSEAD – better known for being a business school than a sports analysis body, Swaab went on to reflect on the potential lessons that could be applied to business talent.

“Like sports teams, teams in organizations vary in their levels of interdependence. When team success merely depends on the accumulation of individual performance (e.g. sales teams), hiring and staffing could simply focus on getting the most talented individuals on board. However, these same strategies can hurt a willingness to coordinate effectively when team success depends on high levels of interdependence (e.g. strategy teams). When interdependence between team members is high, organizations could either hire a better mix of top business talent and non-top talent and/or invest more in training to formalize roles, ranks, and responsibilities. These are important lessons because selection decisions in organizations can produce a too-much-talent effect because of misguided perceptions around the link between top talent and performance.”

The INSEAD researchers are not alone in connecting sport and business talent of course. Indeed it is something of a common theme.

Cambridge University professor, Mark de Rond, explored the topic in depth in his book There is an I in Team, for which he interviewed and studied high-level athletes to glean what lessons about business talent could be learned for those who have to work on teams.

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