Originally published on Forbes.com.
Sometimes less really is more. Chicken experts tell us that when a chicken colony contains too many high egg producers, overall egg production goes down. The best egg producers, it turns out, are fiercely competitive. What’s more, they act as if they are entitled to more food and space. They’re divas. They become so busy fighting each other that everyone produces fewer eggs. When it comes to chickens and eggs, you don’t want an all-star team.
Human all-star teams do not fare much better. Take sports. In his book, There is an I in Team: What Elite Athletes and Coaches Really Know About High Performance, University of Cambridge professor Mark De Rond provides numerous examples of star-studded sports teams that failed to deliver. In 2004, a team featuring LeBron James and former MVP Allen Iverson became the first U.S. men’s basketball team to lose in Olympic play since NBA players joined the Games in 1992. In the inaugural World Baseball Classic of 2006, the American dream team included Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Johnny Damon, yet it failed to make the semifinals, ending up in eighth place.
In business as well, more stars do not necessarily translate into better performance. A study by professor Boris Groysberg and colleagues found that in investment banking, where star analysts are easy to identify according to their ranking in Institutional Investor, adding stars to teams improves performance, as measured by client surveys. But only up to a point. Beyond this point, adding stars actually hurt team performance.
In rock music, supergroups never fail to excite the imagination. The recent frenzy around the supergroup Kings of Chaos is a case in point. The Kings of Chaos lineup of Matt Sorum, Slash, and Duff McKagan (formerly of both Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver), Def Leppard singer Joe Elliot, Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach, and seasoned hard rockers Gilby Clarke (Guns N’ Roses), Glenn Hughs (Deep Purple), Dave Kushner, Myles Kennedy and Ed Roland recently gave a scorching performance in South Africa. Their set consisted entirely of covers. Now, fans of their various bands eagerly anticipate an album of original Kings of Chaos songs.
It is easy to see the appeal of supergroups for musicians. Most of us want to be surrounded by people who inspire us to perform better, whose talents and skills we respect, and who make it easier for us to do our job well. Some like to be the big fish in their work group pond and there are those who feel threatened by high performers, but for most people, high-quality professional co-workers are a dream come true.
From the fan’s perspective, supergroups offer promises of a heightened musical experience.
The problem is that the idea of supergroups is founded on two underlying assumptions, both faulty. First is that teams are the sum of their individual parts. The logic is that the more talent on the team, the better its performance. But becoming a high-performing team takes much more than combining talent. Which is why most supergroups end up disappointing and disbanding.
Take Cream, named because “in all our minds we were the cream of the crop, the elite in our respective domains,” wrote Clapton in his autobiography,Clapton. Beyond an initial honeymoon period, however, Cream became “nothing more than an excuse for us to show off as individuals, and any sense of unity we might have had when we started seemed to have gone out the window.” When Cream tried to create true synergy, they failed.
Likewise Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young proudly insisted from their onset that they were no more than a collection of individuals. David Crosby used to say, “We’re four individuals playin’ together, don’t call us a group and don’t call us super.” The benefit of their lack of unity was that it left them free to pursue solo and side project, true to the free love spirit of the 1960s. But the lack of unity also made it very hard to produce music as a group. Stephen Stills said of the making of their first album, Déjà Vu, that it was like pulling teeth. “It was just four cats recording their own tracks … [so] it wasn’t any fun anymore, with all the bickering and fighting going on.” There was no real synergy, just turn taking turns at the studio.
The problem with the additive assumption underlying supergroups is that it does not account for the process losses that come from egos, quirks, over-confidence, sense of entitlement, and the expectation to lead that stars bring to the team. And it doesn’t account for the skills required to build synergy on the team. Talented individuals need other-focused people around them who will support them and put up with their quirks. As I’ve written in a previous post, they need practical people who help them implement their creative visions. They need people with social skills who can diffuse conflict and provide social cohesion on the team. There is no reason per se that star performers cannot also be synergy building team members. But it would be a lot to ask.
The second problematic assumption is that they overemphasize skills as a team assembly mechanism while ignoring the importance of interpersonal bonds. In the supergroup model, team members are valued because of their skills, not because of who they are as a whole person. But to create truly exciting new creative products, teams need to connect with each other in ways that are more than just means to an end. They need to develop true bonds. Without those bonds, they are unlikely to withstand challenges that come their way. This is the secret to the resilience and longevity of many great bands and teams of entrepreneurs.
As Clapton wrote about Cream’s demise, “We never socialized together and never really shared ideas anymore. We just got together onstage and played and then went our separate ways. In the end, this was the undoing of the music. I think if we had been able to listen to each other and care for one another more, then Cream might have had a chance of further life.”
Based on the experience of other supergroups, Kings of Chaos may find it more difficult to create new music together than to rock the stage by playing old hits. That is, unless they can keep their egos in check and forge true enough bonds to allow for real creative synergy.