Research: Brian Uzzi, MORS
Takes Center Stage
a song in his heart, and a statistical model of network self-assembly
mechanisms, Brian Uzzi reveals how the Broadway musical can
teach important lessons to business leaders
By Matt Golosinski
is home to Broadway and Wall Street. While geographically
close, the worlds of premier theatrical productions and high-flying
financial transactions couldn't, on the surface, seem farther
science and business converge in Brian
Uzzi's latest research on creative enterprises and the
collaborative networks that form in fields such as social
psychology, economics, astronomy and professional musical
Kellogg School professor of management and organizations is
offering a kind of song-and-dance routine, rest assured that
it's not the same old song and dance. In fact, anyone seeking
to understand the dynamics behind building winning teams should
note the findings published this year in his paper, "Team
Assembly Mechanisms Determine Collaborative Network Structure
and Team Performance" (co-authored with Northwestern University chemistry and biological engineering professors Roger Guimerá and Luís A. Nunes Amaral and Stanford Graduate School of Business student Jarrett Spiro).
The research appeared in the April 29 edition of Science.
uncovered how creative teams arise and evolve to have the
optimal number of experienced (or "incumbent") players and
newcomers. The researchers examined scholarly and artistic
teams. Publication in top peer-reviewed journals served as
a criterion for assessing the academic teams.
For the Broadway
musical, Uzzi studied the interactions of key figures such
as directors, choreographers and librettists, but not actors.
The researchers scrutinized playbills dating from 1877 to
1990 (2,258 productions in all) looking for successful collaborations
to understand the networks responsible for strongest performances.
also made inferences about diversity's role in team assembly
and what team makeup implies about the overall creative network.
"We developed a
model by which if you know how people assemble local teams,
you are then able to estimate what the larger, systemic-level
network structure looks like," says Uzzi, adding that this
fact can be important for analysts, investors or artists seeking
to estimate the best arena to focus their energies or investments
because different systemic level networks partly determine
how likely it is that breakthrough innovation will emerge
from the network independent of the talent of individuals
within the network.
What Uzzi and his
co-authors discovered is that success came more readily when
a mix of incumbents and newcomers collaborated. While incumbents
often had previous connections with one another, the research
indicates that having too many incumbents repeatedly working
together may lead to substandard results, since homogeneity
can inhibit fresh thinking.
More eclectic teams
can offer a creative jolt, but Uzzi also cautions against
facile notions of diversity.
"Gender, race and
ethnicity are proxies for the kind of diversity we're talking
about - diversity of background, training, experience," he
says. "We're trying to get at the underlying issue of diversity
that is important when structuring groups. You could have
a team composed of [racially diverse] individuals, but if
they all have similar training, you're not getting real diversity."
Part of the challenge
of establishing real diversity, he says, probably stems from
social-psychological reasons -people feel comfortable around
familiar faces. But such teams usually under-perform.
For these reasons,
Uzzi says, teams in corporate America are often deliberately
rearranged. But disruptive social events can also scramble
teams, resulting in a beneficial creative churning. External
shocks such as the Great Depression, World War II and even
the advent of rock 'n' roll have all proven effective in changing
Rock music was
particularly damaging to Broadway because "so much talent
flew out the door to find their fame in the new arena," Uzzi
says. With each disruption, newcomers have greater opportunity
to enter the field, bringing in new ideas.
in musical theater has personal and scholarly components.
Growing up in New York City, he was a Broadway fan. Equally
important, variables associated with the musical as an experimental
subject are more easily controlled than other creative enterprises,
such as Hollywood film productions involving hundreds of people.
note that the optimal team size for Broadway musicals evolved
to number about seven people by 1930 - a figure that has remained
relatively stable since. This appears to be an arrangement
large enough to enable specialization and labor division,
but "small enough to avoid overwhelming costs of group coordination."
isn't likely to go down on Uzzi's pursuit of the theater or
creative networks, particularly since he is also involved
with the American
Musical Theatre Project launched this year by Northwestern
University. The project will have several elements to it,
he notes, including serving as an incubator to develop original
musicals and sell them as intellectual property.
"I always loved
Broadway theatre; it's one of the great American exports to
the world," says Uzzi. "I grew up wanting to do something
related to this industry, and now I'm doing that."