In the best of all possible worlds, you’d have a team comprised of star players working within a superior system. You’d win Super Bowls, collect industry accolades and generally kick every potential competitor to the curb.
If only it were that easy.
But the conversations that circle this balancing act are fascinating and I’d like to share one with you that took place, like all modern day conversations, at the virtual agora of Twitter. Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, the eminence gris of management thinkers, along with Mike Myatt and Whack on the Side of the Head bodhisattva Roger van Oech chimed in on a conversation on Thursday of last week that hit home on the interplay between stars and systems. I won’t be able to capture every twist and turn of this non-linear conversation, but here are a few interesting themes worth exploring.
First off, let me lay out my own bias. I believe that good systems will beat star-studded teams many more times than not, in both sports as well as business. Yes, you can come up with examples of stars beating systems and so can I. My point is a bit deeper than anecdotes, though.
Is it the players or the coaching? The stars or the system?
Tom’s tweet put the ball in play.
@Tom_Peters : If I said “Players most important element of football team,” you’d say I’m idiot: “Duh.” So why many biz people treat “people 1st” as news? 9:44 AM Aug 5th
@Tom_Peters : In football (etc) the “HR guy” is called GM/General Manager-most important guy in org. So why is HR boss in biz usually marginal? 9:47 AM Aug 5th
I follow Tom. I like what he has to say and respect where he’s been. Two tweets on management by way of football metaphor and I was sucked in. And being a Redskin fan, I had to share my pain. But the idea that football – or business in general – is simply a case of hiring the best people and letting them do their thing ran counter to my experiences over the past 20+ years.
Systems beat stars.
I’d rather have a world-beating system in place and teach my people to run my offense than be saddled with stars in the absence of an over-arching vision and framework. If I had to choose, that’s what I’d choose.
From me: @tom_peters Tom, I’ve got one word for you: Redskins. [Systems beat players. IMO, at least.] 9:49 AM Aug 5th via TweetDeck in reply to tom_peters
If you’re even loosely familiar with the Washington Redskins, you know that over the past decade, they’ve spend more money than the federal government on high priced free agents and seen less production out of them than, well, the federal government. With a few short years of Gibbs 2.0, they’ve consistently lacked a system.
From me: @tom_peters @mikemyatt I’ve worked w/ great coaches (football and biz) who have taken ‘good’ talent and beat everyone w/ right systems. 10:00 AM Aug 5th via TweetDeck
I won’t hit every back and forth here, because the discussion went on for quite a while and had many participants on both sides. Suffice it to say, we didn’t end up disagreeing.
Yes, it’s best to have both systems and stars. Nice work if you can get it.
From Tom: @Note_to_CMO I pick both. No system can overcome chronic mediore player selection. 1,281,027,398,000.00 via web in reply to Note_to_CMO
I hate absolutes as much as the next guy. I loathe the Twitter back and forths that aim for an absolute, black & white view of the world. But I care about this subject and have a definite attitude about the impact of the right systems on the people you’ve got.
From me: @mikemyatt @tom_peters If I have my choice betw systems and stars, I pick systems. Systems make good players look great. 9:54 AM Aug 5th via TweetDeck
From Mike: @Note_to_CMO Agreed, but why choose between the two – strive for both because great talent makes great systems even better. 9:55 AM Aug 5th via web in reply to Note_to_CMO
From me: @mikemyatt @tom_peters I’d love to pick both, as well. Systems I can control, have greater upside + tend to solve many ppl problems, too. 9:59 AM Aug 5th via TweetDeck
This, to me, is a bloody important point. I can create a system and install it in an organization. It might be a “facts not feelings” decision making culture, a framework that dictates how marketing and sales will work together, a marketing calendar that stretches over the horizon and a sales process that takes a top-down, macro-to-micro view of the category and key account.
It might be something completely different, too.
But it’s a system that defines how we go to market and what defines “our way of doing things,” and it not only makes us professional, it makes us better than the other guys.
From Tom: IN USA, Patriots football coach Belichick has great system-but would not be on top without top talent to exploit it. 1,281,027,509,000.00 via web
If you’re an American football fan, which clearly I am, the reference to the New England Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick is a good one. I’ve always considered the Patriots to be a team that was system first and stars a distant second. They happen to have stars – on offense – but their defense is relatively star-free. It’s the system.
Yes, I’ll have one of everything – with an extra side of teamwork.
Tom’s point about college coach Bo Schembechler brought up a different angle which added an important element to the otherwise “systems versus stars” wrestling match: namely, the role of teamwork and cohesion.
From Tom: @Note_to_CMO Consider “Bo” Schembechler. Won, as he said, with “just” “good” players-BUT chose for CHARACTER. “Good w “character” = great. 1,281,028,296,000.00 via web in reply to Note_to_CMO
From me: @tom_peters Correct to assume that Bo S’s teams’ character manifested itself as cohesion/teamwork? Diff angle than systems + good pt! 10:12 AM Aug 5th via TweetDeck in reply to tom_peters
From Tom: @Note_to_CMO Cohesion, teamwork, LOVED practice-no prima donna-ism to speak of. 1,281,028,529,000.00 via web in reply to Note_to_CMO
I think we ended up on the same side of the field at the end of the discussion. Systems and players both matter a lot in any enterprise.
From Tom: @Note_to_CMO How about gotta score at least 7 on 10 scale on both for playoff performance, 8 or more on both for Super Bowl? 1,281,027,772,000.00 via web in reply to Note_to_CMO
From me: @tom_peters Close enough for television. Walsh 49-ers, Belichek Pats – Sys 10, Ppl 8+. My old Sony days: Sys 10, ppl 6+. Beat everyone. 10:07 AM Aug 5th via TweetDeck in reply to tom_peters
“Their drills were bloodless battles, their battles bloody drills.”
Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian writing of the legions under Vespasian, describes the apex of organizational behavior.
A training regimen so closely mirroring actual performance that each becomes interchangeable with the other. One prepares the practitioner for the other in an iterative, seamless manner. When the time comes for action, no unnecessary thought is required. The doer need do no more than do what he or she has done countless times before. Muscle memory takes over and the enemy falls, one after the other.
I’ve worked for a Legion before, just once. The Consumer products division at Sony Recording Media in the early to mid-1990’s embodied what Josephus described above, taking a commodity product – where a 10% price decrease drove incremental sell-through upwards of 1,800% (yes, that’s what I said) – and creating a consumer branded franchise where both end users and retailers picked us over our competitors.
We worked within a “facts not feelings” culture, led with unarguable industry data synthesized from syndicated sources and combined this with proprietary consumer insights that drove the big decisions. We had planning down to an art form and brought more creativity to the category than all of our competitors combined. And it showed up in our share numbers.
When a major competitor with 16% share abandoned the category, we laid out a plan to do more than just capture “our fair share” of this significant slice: we set out to take all of it.
We put our plans together based on all of the points above, discussed space management and category captaincy, promotional calendars to drive key merchandising dates and presented everything that we were compared to our competition.
And yes, we did get our fair share of it – which happened to be all of it. We ended up #1 in the category with twice the share of our nearest #2 competitor in a pure commodity business.
What made this work for us was that we had a tremendously strong system in place – the sort that wins Super Bowls, if we revert back to our football metaphor – and yes, we had strong performers in key positions. What was also apparent was that we had great chemistry – the character part, the teamwork element that Tom ascribed to the Schembechler philosophy, steeped in practice and discipline.
All the elements of this far-ranging conversation with some of the most respected names in management were there in my own history. And while I’ll lean on systems as my first “need to have,” I’ll readily acknowledge that having the right high performers on board working not only within that system but working well together made all the difference.
Many thanks to Tom Peters, Mike Myatt, Roger van Oech, Mike Wagner and everyone else who chimed in!
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Thank you for another great post. I’m a 1st year MBA student looking to improve my game to the level you described in the Sony example. Where would one look today for such opportunities?
Thanks for the opportunity to expand our conversation beyond 140 characters. Your points are sound in that maximizing talent and systems is not easy, but then again that’s why companies who can do both have sustainable advantages over those that can’t.
As I mentioned previously, where possible I’m not an either/or kind of guy…Where I can, I like to have my cake and eat it too. In keeping with this line of thinking I don’t believe a choice needs to be made between systems and talent – you can have them both. Great talent makes up for the flawed logic of poorly designed and implemented systems and, makes good systems even better.
On the flip-side of the argument great systems can make average talent look better than it is. However masking the flaws/gaps of average talent, or simply optimizing average talent does not produce the same results that tier-one talent can. No matter how well a system is designed and implemented, there are nonetheless several things that “systems” cannot do that talent “can” do – innovate, allow for context, nuance decisions, etc.
If I had to create a prioritized hierarchy it would be as follows:
1. Great systems and great talent
2. Average systems and great talent
3 Great system and average talent.
Thanks for asking some tough questions and stirring-up a great debate. Have a great evening Stephen…
Alex: that’s a question and a half, to be sure. Here’s the best (and admittedly abridged) answer I can give you:
1. Look for companies with well-developed brands. These tend to have gotten this way because of good habits instilled in the past. This isn’t a catch-all – there are plenty of big brand names with bad habits – but it may be a short-cut.
2. Talk about the systems and frameworks when you interview. Specifically ask for examples of the systems the company has in place that define who they are. Rituals, means of indoctrination, training, formats and other examples will all matter.
3. If you’re pointed in the sales and marketing arenas, look at the standardized formats the company uses for account management (even if you’re in marketing), share tracking, syndicated data + the use of “facts,” and the formalized ways the company chooses to do what it does.
4. Look at how the company makes decisions: facts or feelings? Ask about this. Everyone will say “facts,” so it’s your job to probe deeper – ask them to tell you a story about how they’ve done this recently. If the person you’re talking to can’t give you an example, it’s a red flag – and ask who would be in a better position to answer it. Then, go talk to that person.
5. Make your own list of people within the company you want to talk to – don’t assume that it’s their job to decide who you need to talk to. Ask these other people – including the CEO, who should be on your list – about the rituals, frameworks and decision-making culture he or she has created. If they won’t give you access like this, think hard about whether this is the culture for you. Granted, if you end up in a massive company, you may not have access to a Gates or a Jobs – you decide who you need to talk to.
Good luck! And thanks for stopping by –
Thanks for your very thoughtful post here! I appreciate your weighing in. I completely agree that this isn’t an either/or situation and thus conversations like these often devolve into a specious argument between extremes – glad we’ve avoided that particular rat hole for many reasons. However, on the overall subject of systems versus stars, a few thoughts:
1. In my view (and experience), systems need to guide the stars and not vice versa. There are big idea people and detail people, for example, and not all “stars” fit neatly within either definition. We’re often very resistant to simple labels! But there’s nothing more destructive to a company/department’s morale than a bull in a china shop. A “big thinker” star who’s been successful elsewhere and is given free rein to “think big” in a system that stresses, for example, category management (a retail example, but apt given the post content) will do more damage than good. This is a cultural question, first and foremost, but it goes back to those frameworks that define how a company operates.
2. Strong systems – the ways that we do things that make us unique AND SUCCESSFUL (important – these need to have marketplace validation along the lines of what I noted in my post) – don’t just mask mediocre performers: they make them better. They do this by training them to be effective within the company’s culture and to do well what is rewarded well.
3. Where the skills of the talent – those things that make the star a star – align (forgive the pun) with the needs of the system, then you’ve got the formula for a world beater. The Sony example I gave had rigorous discipline in how we approached decisions, worked with channel partners and promoted our products – we also had extremely creative approaches to our promotions that played to our strengths. A rare combination and the one that caused everything to work for those years we were all together.
Thanks for your thoughts – I don’t think we disagree here, but I think there’s a need to promote the point that great systems (and teamwork, per Tom’s point) are things we can control, are the tides that lift all boats and live much longer lives in the company that stars do. Stars, in my opinion, can be double-edged swords. Sometimes it works out well and often it doesn’t!
Thank you for answering my question. Very helpful.