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The Doctor and The Portability of Talent

Posted by Steve Hughes on March 15, 2011

This weekend the 2011 MotoGP season begins in Qatar and the most fascinating aspect of the racing year for me will be how well Valentino Rossi performs with his new team Ducati. Rossi,  nicknamed “The Doctor” as a mark of respect, is arguably the greatest of all time. He has won nine grand prix world championships, a record seven in the premier class. Rossi won the 500cc World Championship in 2001 and the MotoGP Championships in 2002 and 2003 with Honda. Some commentators suggested that the Honda motorcycle’s superior technology, rather than his talent, was the key factor in his success. Rossi switched to Yamaha, won the opening race of the 2004 season and the championship. Another back to back championship followed in 2005 and he repeated the feat in 2008 and 2009. No one doubts his genius when it comes to riding a motorcycle.

Given his success at Honda and Yamaha, does Valentino Rossi stand in contradiction to the central finding in Boris Groysberg’s fascinating book  “Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance” (summarized in an excellent article by Chip & Dan Heath )? Groysberg’s study of the portability of the talents of Wall Street research analysts  argues that outstanding individual performance is far more context-dependent than it appears to star performers themselves. In short, the talents of stars are less portable than they think they are, and when they move their performance declines. The reason this happens is that there are crucial “in firm” networks and resources that contribute to the analysts success, but that they don’t necessarily appreciate.

Does The Doctor have perfectly portable talent? Not quite. Whilst Rossi has moved from Honda to Yamaha to Ducati, so has his supremely talented and experienced team. Crew chief Jeremy Burgess has worked with Rossi since he joined Honda, as has mechanic Alex Briggs. Mechanics Bernard Ansiau, Brenth Stephens and Track Engineer Matteo Flamigni also moved to Ducati. Why would the team move? Groysberg gives a comprehensive explanation but Alex Briggs has put it quite succinctly – “… the reason I enjoy my job and laugh every day is because of the close group of people I work with. JB, Gaz, Bernie, Brent & Matteo. I left Honda with most of the guys for Yamaha & will head to Ducati with them to finish the story Valentino started with us in 2000.”

Confirmation that a further observation Groysberg makes regarding star analysts probably holds true for MotoGP stars  – those who change firms along with teammates experience no decline in either short or long term performance. The team clearly has a powerful cohesiveness and loyalty to The Doctor that enables them to all achieve great job satisfaction and success. Something that if he had moved alone Rossi would need to replicate, and would adversely affect his performance.

For their part Ducati provide the third key “in firm” resource for winning – a competitive motorcycle. Or, to put it another way, the technology for winning. Technology is crucial for modern racing motorcycles and this year’s Desmosedici GP11 is brimming with it – carbon fibre chassis, slipper clutch, fly by wire throttle, sophisticated traction control. And it is red. Rossi will be relying on Ducati to outpace the season long technological innovations that will be made to the Honda RC212V and Yamaha YZR-M1 machines.

Perhaps, then, The Doctor’s real genius was the early recognition that his talents alone are not enough to sustain consistent, career long  high performance. Outstanding teamwork and technology are also required in the right blend. Can he, his team and Ducati achieve the synergy that will enable him to win in 2011?

Time will tell.

Photo – MotoGP.com

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