It’s the team, stupid

A Reuters article last week focused on the importance of designers in Facebook: “In Silicon Valley, designers emerge as rock stars” it said. A great headline, but misleading and dangerous. It’s fine to have rock star employees, but for me they should never trump the importance of the team.

The article was interesting in other ways, too. Its headline might have suggested that Facebook’s designers might be playing the role of lead band member and Smash Hits pin-up, the content was more measured — it was really about how they are essential to the team. That difference of headline/content is a good example of how we think. We all want easy answers — “how does Facebook do it?” — and the rockstar designer is a good example of the easy answer — “Of course! They make design central; we should hire some rockstar designers of our own, and then we’ll win like Facebook”. Reality, though, tends to be more nuanced and complicated, and creating cults around individuals or individual functions is dangerous.

There are frequently stories in tech circles about how staggeringly valuable it is to find the right developers. and the Reuters article says “Entry-level interactive designers at startups are commanding salaries easily topping $80,000, almost twice the median pay for primarily print designers of about $45,000”. I know one entrepreneur whose philosophy was to find a brilliant, if anti-social, developer and let them get on with it while his managers slid pizza under the door. I know a business team who let their product development process be driven by a brilliant designer, largely alone.

But it’s important to avoid cults — the cult of the designer, the cult of the developer rock star, the cult of the brilliant city trader… It’s much more valuable to build a fantastic team.

People in a company come and go. Putting one of those people on a pedestal might be great for the short term but it creates a single point of failure and it’s dangerous for the long term. If that person has a mission then if they leave before it’s done the people who remain are rudderless. If that person stays beyond their mission completion then the value they are adding from then on is questionable (and aimlessness is damaging to their personal development). Either way, letting an individual or a group of individuals operate unchecked is very likely to lead to problems.

The pizza-sliding entrepreneur went onto greater things, but the technology he left behind was a mess. The business team found they couldn’t align the rockstar designer’s work with everything else they needed to do and had to let him go. And we know what happens to investment banks who let their traders operate unchecked.

Cults are dangerous in business. It’s the team that counts.