It’s the Importance of Managing Diversity in Teams!
Question: How does a team with ever-changing membership maintain a sufficient standard of performance over the course of more than 4 decades in a highly competitive, creative marketplace?
Second question: How does the diversity and composition of team members play into this success?
With a penchant for comedy and entertainment, I turned to the American institution known as Saturday Night Live (SNL) to answer these questions. Lorne Michaels, manager of the SNL team for 39 of its 44 years in existence, and NBC have had to keep this team relevant while competing for people’s attention week in and week out in an era of increasing media fragmentation, rapidly changing media consumption habits, and an ever-growing raft of competitors. Not to mention that the stakes are unusually high for Michaels—if his team doesn’t perform well, it risks being disbanded. Forever.
As SNL is about to start up its 45th season, I set out to find what it is about this team that has propelled it to success for such an impressively long run. SNL’s popularity has gone through peaks and valleys over the decades, with some years being demonstrably better than others. I wondered what we could learn about successfully managing a team through such highs and lows by looking closely at the make-up of how the team was put together each season and how that predicted such trends. Research on team performance suggests that diversity, both in terms of demographics and experience level, can negatively impact team outcomes. In turn, it was of particular interest to investigate whether the changing diversity of the SNL team has helped or hindered its resilience throughout the years.
Step #1: “I’ll Take Diver City for $200, Trebek”
The diversity of a team depends on the characteristics of individual team members. Thus, I logged various personal and professional traits of each SNL cast member that could contribute to the impact of the cast’s diversity and calculated the following team characteristics for each season’s cast:
Percentage of female cast members
Percentage of non-White cast members
Average number of seasons on the show (tenure) across cast members*
The variance of tenure across cast members—measured as the average of how much each cast member’s tenure prior to that season differed from the aggregate cast tenure.
*If a cast member appeared on fewer than half of the episodes of a season, they did not get credit for being part of that season.
Step #2: Team Membership. About Members, But Not a Ship. Talk Amongst Yourselves.
Teams have to remain resilient through changes in membership, and SNL has seen 158 different cast members walk through its revolving door—an epitome of change in membership. Nearly every season the show has been on, the SNL cast has changed through both attrition and new recruits. In fact, there have only been…
7 seasons without new cast members joining
4 seasons where nobody from the previous season left
Only 1 season (Season 6, 1980-81) with an entirely new cast
As a result of the ever-changing cast, there was some serious nostalgia preparing this portion of the dataset as memorable cast members reunited with their former colleagues in adjacent rows of the spreadsheet (think Sandler, Farley, & Spade, or Shannon, Ferrell, & Oteri).
Step #3: We’re Good Enough, We’re Smart Enough, and Gosh Darnit, People Watch Us.
The most objective data available to measure cast performance are Nielsen television ratings, the best estimate available for the number of viewers of a television show. Instead of simply looking at how the rating for each season compared to other seasons, though, it was important to compare the season rating to a standard that would also account for the changing landscape of TV viewing. Specifically, all shows have experienced a steady decline in ratings from 1975 to present as technology, market saturation, and viewing habits have changed. This standard was calculated by averaging the ratings for the top 5 TV shows of each of the same seasons and then seeing how SNL compared to that average. The closer SNL is to the Top-5 Average, the stronger the show is doing.
Step #4: The Ready-for-Primetime Players
Few teams are more client-facing than the cast of SNL, or actors/performers in general. These team members have no choice but to connect with their customers and adapt their approach in real-time—on live national television, nonetheless. And an essential part of connecting with the audience is ensuring the ethnic and gender diversity of the team reflects that of its audience. Thus, over the course of SNL’s lifespan, the diversity of its cast has come under increased scrutiny, which has resulted in a steadily upward trend of diverse representation. Importantly, the composition of the show’s cast has generally corresponded with SNL’s ratings performance. In other words, the higher the percentage of non-white cast members, the better the show performed relative to a benchmark of other top shows from that year.
Relating to the audience, though, is only part of the story for a team operating in such a creative field. Research suggests that such a team also needs a constant blend of new ideas with the tried and true, and the cast of SNL appears to be no exception. In other words, the wider the range of tenure among cast members, the better the show performed relative to a benchmark of other top shows from that year.
Though my analyses considered several forms of cast member diversity, only variance in tenure and racial diversity appeared linked to the show’s ratings. It’s important to stress, however, that age, gender, ethnicity, and the intersection of all forms of diversity matter to an organization, even if they’re hard to measure (e.g., the show has had only five African American women on its cast – ever). Even a show with a history as storied as SNL’s provides only a small sample for the kinds of statistics used to test these thing. Further, despite its progress, the show has plenty of room to continue increasing its inclusion of diverse cast members.
Main Findings: The show has performed better in seasons with greater representation of non-white performers and with greater variety in the tenure of its cast members.
I’ve Got a Fever, and the Only Prescription is Strategic Diversity Management
This deep dive into team membership provides a counterpoint to past research suggesting that diversity can actually inhibit team performance. However, in highly competitive and creative contexts such as SNL's, prior research has suggested diversity can strengthen team performance as well. For almost 45 years now, Lorne Michaels and NBC have had to manage the membership of their team. They have strategically recruited, developed, and eventually released members of the cast. In doing so, they have remained agile enough to keep the people’s attention and yet resilient throughout significant changes in customer behaviors and demands.
More broadly, leading a diverse team isn’t just a matter of equity and fairness; these analyses add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that it’s also a business imperative. There is clearly so much room to grow in terms of diversity on SNL, on television in general, and in business on the whole.
Additionally, simply having a diverse team should be considered table stakes. Without an inclusive and equitable team culture, the benefits of diverse perspectives can easily be lost. For example, SNL’s success isn’t simply attributed to hiring a diverse cast or churning team members in and out on a regular basis; it also relies heavily on creating a team dynamic in which varying ideas are heard, valued, and promoted. As leaders, here are some things we can all do to harness the power of diversity and inclusion to produce a resilient team:
Don’t leave an idea attached to the source. Once it’s thrown into the pot, the team should take accountability for subsequent failure or success. You could even have team members submit ideas anonymously.
Recognize contributions, not successes. Leaders should encourage and reward the quantity and variety of ideas produced, not just the ideas that ultimately make it into production. This reduces the pressure to provide only “good” ideas, which can prevent people from speaking up.
Be prepared for failure and know that failure may not always be short-term. The SNL team had stints where they struggled for multiple seasons (e.g., Seasons 11 & 12 were two of the three worst-performing seasons in SNL history), yet persevered (Season 13 showed the biggest between-season improvement in performance).
Stick to a procedure. SNL is well-known for (and Lorne Michaels is somewhat notorious for) its grueling yet consistent weekly schedule leading up to each show. This can minimize the resources spent on creating new procedures and allows for the team to have the capacity to respond to unexpected situations (e.g., breaking news that SNL wants to incorporate into its lineup).
Signing off—I’m Daniel Shore, and that’s news to me. (h/t Kevin Nealon)
Acknowledgement: Avoiding Two Wild and Crazy Eyes
Instead of having to sit down, glue myself to the TV, and watch the opening credits for all 850+ episodes, I gladly admit the SNL Cast Wikipedia page (and several other SNL-related Wikipedia pages), made this project possible. It took some serious splitting, cleaning, and organizing of the data, but, amazingly, no watching was needed. Hence, a huge thank you to Wikipedia and the editors of these pages.