How to make the team greater than the sum of its parts

The phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a phrase that I have heard many times in my life. It implies something about synergy. About a group of people interacting in such a way that they perform better than they would do individually. It has long eluded me what this boils down to. Which simple statement could more clearly explain how this can work. This post is going to address exactly that and suggest an experiment to try and create such teams.

How could a team be greater than the sum of its parts

Teams exist because they have a job to do, a goal to achieve. This goal can be called the purpose of the team, provided that they feel a passion for achieving it. If this purpose is not trivially achieved it must mean that there are several tasks to be completed to achieve it. Let’s look at an example:

Skill matrix – by Annelies de Meyere

In this example Abe and Elaine have rather different skillsets. Abe is stronger at determining pricing and creating proposals, whereas Elaine is way stronger at designing a solution.

If they both work on all tasks equally during a week and we assume a linear correlation between skill and amount of work done, their output is 3,25 work per week:

If they decide to work together as a team and help each other out in order to achieve greater results together. They can easily achieve more than 1,5 times as much work:

If their purpose transcends their individual desires, they will try to create a situation where their strengths excel, and their weaknesses are compensated by the other.

This could mean that the one that is better at a single task wants to do it. Alternatively it could mean that the one that is better teaches the other how to become better at it. Whatever is the case, the crucial part is that in a successful team your weaknesses are compensated by other’s strengths.

What makes teams compensate for each other’s weaknesses

Being in a team where people have the ability to help you compensate for your weaknesses does not necessarily mean that they will. In this section I will give a short overview of a couple of things that I have learned and experienced that actually makes team members compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

1. Have a common vision (purpose)

A common vision is a thing that can help a team focus on the end result. Focusing all the members of a team on the same thing will help them work together. When all are trying to achieve the same thing they can be unified in their efforts. That can help the team focus on the end goal and makes compensating each other’s weaknesses and strengthening each other’s strengths a more logical thing to do.

2. Do one thing and do it great (focus)

Even teams that have a broad variety of skills in the individuals don’t necessarily help each other. A team could be working on many different tasks at once. In those teams people tend to spend their thoughts on how to keep every person working, assuming that optimizes output.

Focus instead on doing only 1 thing with your team. It keeps people together. When they focus on a task, weaknesses and strengths become more obvious. The people who are stronger at the task will then start helping the ones that are weaker so as to keep the whole team going forward. So work on 1 sub goal with your team and do that great.

3. Value learning and maintaining a steady high pace (quality)

By valuing learning highly we can create an environment in which it is “okay” to not know something or have some skill. Investing time and effort in learning opens up a situation in which team members can focus on end results and a steady high pace of achieving those results. When people try to learn, it will create an automatic focus on finding people that cover your weaker skills, since those are the people you can learn from the easiest.

Focusing on creating and maintaining a steady high pace gives the team a challenging task. If the task is challenging enough, team members will realize that just doing their part will not lead to steady high results without putting in steady high amounts of time.

4. Trust and care about each other

In order to want to help someone else it is paramount for people to trust each other. Only in an environment where you feel safe, do you have time to help another. A personal connection goes a great way to help ensure that you understand the other people in your team a lot better. A little thing that you can do is to tell a colleague about your personal life.

An experiment to help an existing team

To make the information presented above more applicable, I have tried to find two ways of making teams that utilize this knowledge in order to help build great teams. In this first section, we focus on a 3 phase experiment to help an existing team grow.

Phase 1: Determine required skills

Figure out what the team needs to work on, and what skills are needed to be successful. Try to name as few as possible.

Phase 2: Fill in chart with graphical representation of self-assessment

Present team members with a matrix in which they can represent how strong they are on the required skills with a graphical representation.

Phase 3: Take action where necessary

Use the matrix to identify potential weaknesses of the team.
Identify shortage of knowledge and expertise in the team. Try to offer the team a way to get stronger in that particular skill. This could be by expanding the team or by educating the existing team members. Identify weaknesses of team members that can be covered by team members that are strong in that particular skill.

An experiment to create a new team

In this second section, we will focus on a 5 phase experiment to help create a new team from scratch.

Phase 1: Determine required skills

Figure out what the team needs to work on, and what skills are needed to be successful. Try to name as few as possible.

Phase 2: Pre selection

Select possible candidates that you feel are suited to add value to the work that needs to be done.

Phase 3: Let candidates rank themselves in the required skills

Present candidates with a sheet where the required skills are presented and ask them to rank themselves on those skills.

Attention: ranking means that you make an ordering of the skills. So like this:

This is ranking

and not like this:

This is not ranking
Not ranking

Phase 4: Meet and greet

Let the candidates be together in a room where they can mix and mingle for about 1 hour. Make sure that they don’t stick to only a few people but that they get to know as many other possible candidates in that time.

Phase 5: Form a team

Let the candidates form a team with the following constraints:

  1. A team must have at least 1 person with a high rank on each of the required skills
  2. For every person on the team, for every skill that they ranked lowest, there must be a person that has that skill as a high ranking skill and wants to help them.

Creating more teams like this

I am on a quest to create teams where people feel energized, love the product they work on and go home feeling fulfilled. Want to join me in my quest? Try out Challenge #2 and let me know in the comments what you experienced.