Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant on Teams


One of the benefits of commuting across the top of Toronto on North America’s busiest highway is I have lots of time to listen to my favorite podcasts.

One series I follow is called Revisionist History, a podcast hosted by Malcolm Gladwell, an author known for writing about research in social sciences, often presented alongside observations and stories. This season has started with a discussion between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant, where, among a number of topics, they talked about the impact of teams on individual contributions and outcomes.

I have not fact checked anything they have stated, and I don’t know anything about basketball, hospitals, or flying airliners to comment, but some of the ideas are interesting to think about.

Here are a few interesting excerpts from the transcript:

On the impact of moving from one team to another:
“One of the best guards in the game this season was this kind of Victor Oladipo on Oklahoma City, and was considered a disaster, and he simply moves teams to a new environment with a presumably better coach, he’s no longer playing with Russell Westbrook who’s probably a very difficult person to play with, and simply by moving teams he went from being someone who was widely considered to be a bust, someone would be washing out of the league soon or a mediocre player, into this suddenly a superstar who’s kind of playing transcendently”

“The best coach in the league is probably Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics … every time a very promising player is traded from the Boston Celtics they turn out to be terrible … Jae Crowder is a good example. Everyone’s like… ‘oh god they traded Jae Crowder wow i don’t know if they can survive without Jae Crowder’. Jae Crowder goes to Cleveland Cavaliers, …people realize oh Jae Crowder is actually not any good he just was good on Boston”

“You then begin to wonder, how many players on basketball teams who we consider mediocre are actually really good but just in the wrong environment? Is Victor Oladipo is he an exception or is he part of a larger trend? And I am increasingly of the opinion that there must be lots of Victor Oladipo’s out there, I think there are, and I think they’re not just in basketball”

On the effect of moving from one team to another:
"…is I have a different team who knows my strengths and weaknesses, and we’ve developed a set of effective routines, and that kind of suggests that performance and skill and expertise is team specific, it’s contact specific"
This I’ve experience in recreational sports - a less athletically capable, but experienced team, can often defeat a more athletic team, just by knowing where team mates will be, how fast they can run, how far they can pass, etc…

"…over seventy five percent of airline accidents happened the first time the crews flying together, and the evidence goes so far on this that NASA did a simulation showing that if you had a crew that was well rested flying together for the first time they made more errors than a sleep deprived that just pulled an all nighter but flown together before"

On building teams:
"…you hire individuals, reward individuals, promote individuals, … What if … you hired entire teams but you didn’t just do that, you promoted teams, rewarded teams"