Do talents or systems make the difference?

What makes the difference; talents or systems? If you take, say, a great soccer player like Lionel Messi and put him into an inferior team will he do well and make a difference to that team or is it the fact that he plays for Barcelona that what makes him great? This question – formulated slightly different – is the crux of a debate which has been going on for a while. Lets look at the two arguments;

Malcom Gladwell (who wrote ‘Blink‘, ‘The Tipping Point‘ and ‘Outliers‘) wrote that “The talent myth assumes that people make organisations smart. More often than not, it’s the other way round” in a seminal article in the New Yorker in 2002. This is supported in Boris Groysberg’s ‘Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance‘. In this book Boris describes analysis of the careers of over 1,000 ‘star analysts’ at 78 Wall Street  investment banks, and 20,000 non-star analysts at 400 investment banks. His startling finding: star analysts who change firms suffer an immediate and lasting decline in performance. The conclusion, in their view, is that the systems, culture, resources and teamwork of the company matters more than the talent. In other words performance may be more firm-specific than previously thought.

On the other side stands a lot of the traditional management literature, which argues that attracting and retaining the best people is the most important thing to get right. Talent matters a lot. This includes authors such as Jim Collins (notably ‘Build to Last‘ and ‘From Good to Great‘) who aruges that getting the right people on the bus and putting them in the right seats are more important than finding out where to go (talent matters more than strategy).

I believe that both arguments are right to some degree but not in their entirety. I am not sure that any of the perspectives are very productive in their purest sense. That talented people should be the answer to everything is clearly too simple. At the same time I don’t think it makes much sense to say that some people are not better skilled to do a job better than others and having a lot of those skilled people in the most important job functions makes a difference. Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell and Boris Groysberg have a point about not relying too much on star performers and not believing that they are soly the reason for the company’s success. However their argument should not be taken too far. Talents matters a great deal. Just ask Barcelona FC.

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