The enduring benefits of hiring a star
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I’m the Managing Partner of A Large Law Firm and I’m looking to bulk up my partner team in a crucial area. Do I promote three SA's at $500,000 p.a. each or do I hire a known rainmaker at $4,000,000? Part of the answer may lie in how much the rest of my partners can learn from the rainmaker’s creativity and innovative approaches.
Much has been written about the benefits of collaboration and sharing of ideas and knowledge during times demanding change and innovation. Less is known about the intricate skills required to integrate, or synthesize, various elements in a way that will maximize creativity, and create innovations that help organizations out-perform their competitors.
A new paper, published in Organization Science, studies the creative aspects of interpersonal collaboration from a new perspective: the quality of the collaborator, both stars—people able to generate a disproportionate amount of influential output—and non-stars.
The paper looks at the different benefits stars and non-stars bring, both to the task at hand and to the collaborators' ability to come up with break through ideas in the future.
What the researchers say:“We wanted to see if, by working with a star a non-star would be more likely to become a star. We found that indeed they would,” said the lead author. “The interesting question is how does this happen and why does this happen? What happens when you work with a star that’s different from when you work with other people?”
By examining the creative performance of designers who have been granted design patents by the US Patent and Trademark Office over a 35-year period, the authors found that collaborating with star designers indeed significantly increases the chances of someone becoming a star. Interestingly, they found evidence that creative outperformers are more likely to possess the synthesis skills required for creating breakthrough innovations and that, in the right circumstances, they transfer such skills to their collaborators; skills such as the ability to understand existing innovation paradigms and create a new one by reconciling distant and often seemingly contradictory viewpoints and then continue to iterate and refine such a new paradigm until it leads to an outstanding innovation output.
All these creative skills are tacit and unlikely to be learnt formally. While some creative individuals may pick them up intuitively or through years of trial-and-error experience, the likelihood of someone absorbing these skills is much higher if they work in close proximity with someone who already possesses them. This allows would-be innovators to observe, learn and practice synthesis skills almost by osmosis.
“It is important to note that collaborating with stars doesn't preclude collaborating with others who are non-stars,” the researchers noted. “Both types of collaborators benefit the innovator's creative performance and increase the likelihood of creating a breakthrough innovation.”
In fact, some companies today avoid the idea of having a team with a dominant star, and instead focus on the proven premise that diversity—having a wide-ranging pool of potentially innovative ideas—is the key to creativity.
“However, what we found,” they added, “is that as well as bringing with them new data and experience like a non-star, stars contribute a set of creative skills, rarely found anywhere else, that can have a lasting transformation of the creative abilities of others.”
When non-stars collaborate, shared expertise or a cohesive social network can limit diversity and steer the team towards “group think” negatively impacting creative output. However, when non-stars work with stars, there’s a greater chance to facilitate the exploitation of their own creative synthesis skills.It encourages collaborators to see similarities among their different perspectives and iteratively refine the most promising ideas, increasing the likelihood of future breakthrough innovations. Most importantly, such collaboration facilitates the transfer of the tacit creative skills from stars to their collaborators.
So, what? It seems to me that four points need to be added to this:
- Most obviously, the star must be willing to share ideas and the non-stars must be willing to learn. This is not always the case. Often in law firms, for example, the rainmakers are reluctant to share skills with others.
- The context for innovative collaboration and must be there. For example, it must be safe not just to experiment but to occasionally fail.
- There must be relational safety. The team—star or no star—must trust and like each other.
- The leadership style in the firm must be non-transactional and avoid micromanagement.
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