Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change; Co-Director, Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO); Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences, McCormick School (Courtesy); Professor of Sociology, Weinberg College (Courtesy)
Leadership Apr 11, 2007
Teamwork Takes Center Stage
How the Broadway musical can teach important lessons to business leaders
Manhattan is home to Broadway and Wall Street. While geographically close, the worlds of premier theatrical productions and high-flying financial transactions couldn’t, on the surface, seem farther apart.
But art, science and business converge in Brian Uzzi’s latest research on creative enterprises and the collaborative networks that form in fields such as social psychology, economics, astronomy and professional musical theater.
If the Kellogg School professor of management and organizations is offering a kind of song-and-dance routine, rest assured that it’s not the same old song and dance. In fact, anyone seeking to understand the dynamics behind building winning teams should note the findings published this year in his paper, “Team Assembly Mechanisms Determine Collaborative Network Structure and Team Performance” (co-authored with Northwestern University chemistry and biological engineering professors Roger Guimerá and Luís A. Nunes Amaral and Stanford Graduate School of Business student Jarrett Spiro). The research appeared in the April 29 edition of Science.
This investigation uncovered how creative teams arise and evolve to have the optimal number of experienced (or “incumbent”) players and newcomers. The researchers examined scholarly and artistic teams. Publication in top peer-reviewed journals served as a criterion for assessing the academic teams.
For the Broadway musical, Uzzi studied the interactions of key figures such as directors, choreographers and librettists, but not actors. The researchers scrutinized playbills dating from 1877 to 1990 (2,258 productions in all) looking for successful collaborations to understand the networks responsible for strongest performances.
The researchers also made inferences about diversity’s role in team assembly and what team makeup implies about the overall creative network.
“We developed a model by which if you know how people assemble local teams, you are then able to estimate what the larger, systemic-level network structure looks like,” says Uzzi, adding that this fact can be important for analysts, investors or artists seeking to estimate the best arena to focus their energies or investments because different systemic level networks partly determine how likely it is that breakthrough innovation will emerge from the network independent of the talent of individuals within the network.
What Uzzi and his co-authors discovered is that success came more readily when a mix of incumbents and newcomers collaborated. While incumbents often had previous connections with one another, the research indicates that having too many incumbents repeatedly working together may lead to substandard results, since homogeneity can inhibit fresh thinking.
More eclectic teams can offer a creative jolt, but Uzzi also cautions against facile notions of diversity.
“Gender, race and ethnicity are proxies for the kind of diversity we’re talking about - diversity of background, training, experience,” he says. “We’re trying to get at the underlying issue of diversity that is important when structuring groups. You could have a team composed of [racially diverse] individuals, but if they all have similar training, you’re not getting real diversity.”
Part of the challenge of establishing real diversity, he says, probably stems from social-psychological reasons -people feel comfortable around familiar faces. But such teams usually under-perform.
For these reasons, Uzzi says, teams in corporate America are often deliberately rearranged. But disruptive social events can also scramble teams, resulting in a beneficial creative churning. External shocks such as the Great Depression, World War II and even the advent of rock ‘n’ roll have all proven effective in changing established networks.
Rock music was particularly damaging to Broadway because “so much talent flew out the door to find their fame in the new arena,” Uzzi says. With each disruption, newcomers have greater opportunity to enter the field, bringing in new ideas.
Uzzi’s interest in musical theater has personal and scholarly components. Growing up in New York City, he was a Broadway fan. Equally important, variables associated with the musical as an experimental subject are more easily controlled than other creative enterprises, such as Hollywood film productions involving hundreds of people.
The researchers note that the optimal team size for Broadway musicals evolved to number about seven people by 1930 - a figure that has remained relatively stable since. This appears to be an arrangement large enough to enable specialization and labor division, but “small enough to avoid overwhelming costs of group coordination.”
The curtain isn’t likely to go down on Uzzi’s pursuit of the theater or creative networks, particularly since he is also involved with the American Musical Theatre Project launched this year by Northwestern University. The project will have several elements to it, he notes, including serving as an incubator to develop original musicals and sell them as intellectual property.
“I always loved Broadway theatre; it’s one of the great American exports to the world,” says Uzzi. “I grew up wanting to do something related to this industry, and now I’m doing that.”