Tech Talent Wars, Superstar Performers, and Women

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There's a meme floating around the web about the talent war and the competition for "star" performers.  A piece at the NY Times recently discussed the trend of buying startups in order to capitalize on their founders' talents, with Mark Zuckerberg saying that “someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better.

Meanwhile, over at Harvard Business Review, Fast Company's founder Bill Taylor blogged -- and then blogged again -- that superstar talent is an overrated myth, one that ignores the need for systems and teamwork in order for organizations to be sustainable. Malcolm Gladwell famously has some thoughts on this topic and around the web there seems to be research both supporting and contradicting the star performer approach. 

Star performers come in both genders, of course, but at tech startups it seems they're predominantly men. The lack of women starting tech companies might even exacerbate the lack of women; venture capitalist John Doerr has said that he looks for "white, male nerds" with "absolutely no social life" when deciding which companies to fund, even though tech companies founded by women have lower failure rates and use less capital

Joanne Cohoon's research on startup cultures finds that the John Doerr "pattern recognition" approach has a negative impact both on a company's ability to hire and retain women and on a company's performance; in fact, having more women has been shown to result in increased profits and efficiency).

New research shows that there's little correlation between the intelligence of an individual and the "collective intelligence" (problem-solving ability, team performance) of the group in which that individual participates. In other words, groups full of super-smart people don't necessarily perform better than groups of average-intelligence people. Interestingly, this same research finds that there is a factor that increases a group's collective intelligence: the presence of women.

Acknowledging the existence of gender stereotypes, the lack of women starting tech companies, and the fact that technology jobs are booming, a debate over star performers vs. high-performing teams seems beside the point. As Bill Taylor points out in reference to the Dallas Mavericks and the Barcelona soccer club, organizations with "winning" records need both.