When we think of high-performing teams, we often think of them as long-term allies — a band of brothers in the organizational world. It takes a while for teams to move through the traditional phases of storming and norming before they start to really perform. It’s logical, then, to assume that the longer a team is together, the better they’ll be at performing. But research into the inner workings of teams, particularly creative teams, suggests a different conclusion, one supported by experience from many of the most innovative companies: The best teams might temporary, with members forming around a given project and then going their separate ways to work on new projects.
The empirical evidence for temporary teams comes from an unlikely arena, but one filled with high-pressure deadlines, conflicting egos and the need to be outstandingly creative: Broadway. Taking a musical from idea to opening night requires a large team for writing, composing, staging, lighting and so much more. Most of the artists working on Broadway are working on more than one production in a year, sometimes more than one production at a time. As such, artists develop a broad and interconnected network of relationships and can find themselves working with lots of old colleagues or teams of whole new people.
This caught the attention of researchers Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro. Uzzi and Spiro wanted to know if the strength or diversity of those relationships affected the success of the show.
To find out, the duo first needed to map the network of connections in the Broadway community. They analyzed every musical produced on Broadway from 1945 to 1989, including shows that were axed before opening night. The final database cataloged 474 musicals and listed 2,092 artists, including Broadway legends from Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber, revealing a complex, dense network of collaborations and working relationships between producers, writers, actors and choreographers, a fertile ground for teams to connect, collaborate, disband and repeat the cycle. They called this a “small world network.”
Next, the pair calculated the level of repeat collaborations in any given production year, a value they called “small world quotient” or simply Q. When Q was high, the teams were densely interconnected, which meant that more artists knew each other and were working together on multiple projects. When Q was low, there wasn’t as much familiarity and multiple collaborations were rare. Uzzi and Spiro then compared each year’s Q score to the level of financial success and critical acclaim achieved by the shows that year. Given what we know about teams, it would be logical to assume that a higher Q would produce shows that were more creative and successful. Instead, Uzzi and Spiro found that the correlation wasn’t a straight line, rising in success as it rose in collaboration; the trend line looked more like an inverted U. The most successful years had a Q score around 2.6 on a scale from 1 to 5, meaning the production teams had a good mix of old colleagues and new members. The rationale behind their findings is that old colleagues bring knowledge of the process, as well as prior norms (and awareness of past storms) from old teams while the new members bring fresh ideas that enhance the creativity of the show. Old colleagues alone wouldn’t have nearly as many ideas and new members might not get out of the storming phase and see their ideas implemented.