Tag Archives: all-star

who wants an “all-star team” anyway?

A friend sent me this job listing recently, and I see it suffers from a wrong-headed (though well-intentioned) institutional fixation that hiring managers seem to have: that of wanting an “all-star team”.

“we are building an all-star team”

Sigh. This mentality is promoted by smart, successful people like Joel Spolsky:

“You’re going to see three types of people in your interviews. At one end of the scale, there are the unwashed masses, lacking even the most basic skills for this job. They are easy to ferret out and eliminate, often just by asking two or three quick questions. At the other extreme you’ve got your brilliant superstars who write lisp compilers for fun, in a weekend, in Assembler for the Nintendo DS. And in the middle, you have a large number of “maybes” who seem like they might just be able to contribute something. The trick is telling the difference between the superstars and the maybes, because the secret is that you don’t want to hire any of the maybes. Ever.”

What’s wrong with the premise? Easy – just watch any sports all-star game: they all, each and every one, stink. Why? There is rarely ever such a thing as an “all-star team”. Stars, by definition, are individuals.

Sure – you have the anomalies: the 1927 Yankees, for example. That one magical time when all the stars aligned, the wind blew in the right direction, the grass bent just so, and everyone did exactly what they needed to do every time. They had 6 future Hall-of-Famers on the roster – names you know (and some you don’t): Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Herb Pencock, Waite Hoyt, Tony Lazzeri. They won 110 games and only lost 44 (it was before the 162 game season).

But even the 1927 Yankees didn’t win every year. Just the next year they still won, but lost a player from tuberculosis. And the next year they only won 88 games.

In 1927, Lou Gehrig batted .375. In 1929 it was only .300.

In 1927 Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. In 1929 only 46.

What happened? Other teams learned to adapt, the rosters changed, the weather was different, the grass grew differently … in short: the “magic” wasn’t a formula – it was just magic.

In baseball, the All-Star Game is ostensibly a show for the fans (though, given the shortness of each players’ appearance in the game, and how managers might be inclined to less-heavily (or more-heavily) use players from their own teams, you wonder how much of a “show” it really is). A bunch of excellent baseball players who normally play against each other are brought together for a few hours to play with each other… and then go back to being opponents two days later.

I saw this at Opsware: they had a hiring philosophy that you should “never hire someone dumber than yourself” (if you were an interviewer). Theoretically, this should have lead to a corporate environment of smart people. And it did – mostly (I’ll leave-out some of the less-than-stellar hires Opsware made while I was there). But it also lead to having a roomful of smart people – ones who weren’t necessarily really “smart” when it came to talking to other people .. a distinct problem. (Take a look at this Quora entry on things smart people do that are dumb.)

Smart people sitting in a room and solving ideas tend to lead to the architecture astronaut view of the world. (Ironically, the same Joel who only wants to hire the best-of-the-best also realizes that super smart people will tend to get so enamored of their own ideas that they’ll craft little silos where they can sit and happily yammer-on about their pet interest.)

I’ve had the privilege of working with some scary-smart people. And I’ve had the horror of working with some scary-smart people.

Sadly, it is far more often the case that the super smart people I’ve known and worked with have been horrors and not privileges.

We all want to work in the best environments we can – we want good benefits, interesting work, quality family time, great coworkers, awesome bosses … We all like to think that the folks we work with are amazingly brilliant – among the best in their fields. But what is the statistical likelihood of that? Pretty small.

If IQ were the only guide for potential success, you’d think that everyone would want to gravitate towards places that have masses of high-IQ folks. Like Mensa. Like we think Google must be. Or like Dave Eggers’ fictional company The Circle.

But IQ isn’t the only determinant of success – we can see that clearly with some of our most famous politicians, business leaders, cultural influences, etc.

Putting a bunch of smart (or athletic or fast or whatever other term/factor you want to use to quantify “all-star”) folks together in one room to become a team isn’t really realistic. What makes a good team is complex – there’s shared vision, good interpersonal skills, knowing whom to contact for what, and more. It’s not merely having a bunch of people who are “the best” at what they do. It’s having people who can be [close to] “the best” together.