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What are the limits on the use of the very best talent?
I have some questions about the best way to use our very best talent. These are based on my reading of Organising Genius, which profiles “great groups” like Disney, the Manhattan Project, Apple, and asks what it takes for such groups to succeed. The purpose of asking this question is that we need more such groups to make progress. No argument from me: look at covid!
But I would like to know, when it is better for the very best talent not to be collected into a great group? There are a few sub-questions.
If every good office had some great talent, would all offices be marginally better to an overall net positive? From memory, I think it is the case that when the best students go to fancy schools, the other students lose out on the benefit of having them in the class and their overall level drops. Could something similar happen if we have too many great groups or attempts at great groups?
Do we risk significantly shortening the period of high productivity from great talent because their personal lives burn out? When the very best talent is brought into a great group they undergo huge pressure. This is invigorating for them but often a big problem for their families, who end up neglected. What is the equilibrium here?
I think one (the?) major explanatory factor behind the success of these groups is circumstances. Such groups are made possible by unique threat (Manhattan) or new technology and thus creative possibility (Disney, Apple, Manhattan, PARC) or electoral possibilities (Clinton vs Bush after long Republican office) or cultural change (Black Mountain). Without those external circumstances, could assembling great groups be counter productive? It is notable that Clinton’s re-election lacked the same urgency and fire. To what extent was it a waste of talent to keep those people there the second time around? Some of them geared up for the Gore campaign…
One effect of this sort of book, as well as encouraging better understanding of these groups, which we very much need, has been to encourage the idea that all workplaces need a sense of purpose. But without external circumstances to justify that, the way you get get such a sense (and I think “importance” would be a better idea than purpose: we don’t all work at Disney) is through having great leadership, and talent. To the extent that that is true, I wonder how much this theory of greatness can be counter-productive. Perhaps if you are really top-talent, you can sometimes be best used in a not-quite historic organisation…
What do you think?