You’d think that doing thousands of heart surgeries would make you better at them.
Surgeons only got better at their home hospital: the one where they knew the team best and developed strong working relationships.
When Huckman and Pisano examined the data, they discovered a remarkable pattern. Overall, the surgeons didn’t get better with practice. They only got better at the specific hospital where they practiced. For every procedure they handled at a given hospital, the risk of patient mortality dropped by 1 percent. But the risk of mortality stayed the same at other hospitals. The surgeons couldn’t take their performance with them. They weren’t getting better at performing coronary artery bypass grafts. They were becoming more familiar with particular nurses and anesthesiologists, learning about their strengths and weaknesses, habits and styles. This familiarity helped them avoid patient deaths, but it didn’t carry over to other hospitals. To reduce the risk of patient mortality, the surgeons needed relationships with specific surgical team members.
Star analysts on Wall Street? Same thing.
Even though they were supposed to be individual stars, their performance wasn’t portable. When star analysts moved to a different firm, their performance dropped, and it stayed lower for at least five years.
What about for artists? Yup.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s drought lasted until he gave up on independence and began to work interdependently again with talented collaborators. It wasn’t his own idea: his wife Olgivanna convinced him to start a fellowship for apprentices to help him with his work. When apprentices joined him in 1932, his productivity soared, and he was soon working on the Fallingwater house, which would be seen by many as the greatest work of architecture in modern history.
In my interview with Gautam Mukunda, who teaches leadership at Harvard Business School, he said a similar thing regarding context and co-workers when it comes to being a leader:
The unfiltered leader who is an amazing success in one situation will be a catastrophic failure in the other, in almost all cases. It’s way too easy to think, “I’ve always succeeded, I am a success, I am successful because I am a success, because it’s about me, and therefore I will succeed in this new environment.” Wrong.
You were successful because you happened to be in an environment where your biases and predispositions and talents and abilities all happened to align neatly with those things that would produce success in that environment. That doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the next environment down the pike.
Is it really the team that makes the difference? Similar to the surgeons, the Wall Street analysts who were reunited with those that made them great soared.
But some of the star analysts did maintain their success. If they moved with their teams, the stars showed no decline at all in performance. The star analysts who moved solo had a 5 percent probability of being ranked first, while the star analysts who moved with teammates had a 10 percent probability of being ranked first — the same as those who didn’t move at all.
We often take our context and those around us for granted. What is it about those around you that’s making you good at what you do?
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