Photo by dullhunk
A few months ago I took a course about high performing team where Prof. Lechner (with whom I later worked with as a research assistant) gave a great metaphor that stuck with me. We were talking about synergy and how the purpose of a team is to create synergy otherwise there is no point in even creating a team. Then she told us:
Think about the cells in your body. Each cell by itself is useless. It does not do anything special. It actually won’t be able to survive on its own. However, when you put all these useless cells together, they create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Something utterly unique and remarkable. This is the goal of forming a team. The synergy that is above the parts.
This week I was listening to a podcast from RadioLab titled: Cities. In it, they interview a scientist who explains that cells of organisms require less and less energy the more complex the creature they belong to becomes. In other words, the cells of an ant, each by its own, require more energy, than the cells of an elephant, each by its own. Every cell actually starts working slower, thus consuming less and less energy.
J. Richard Hackman writes in his book Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances:
It is a mistake – a common one and often a fatal one – to use a team for work that requires the exercise of powers that reside within and are best expressed by individual human beings. A manager’s first responsibility in creating a work team, then, is to make sure that the work to be done is appropriate for team performance and that it requires members to work together interdependently to achieve identifiable collective outcome. If that cannot be done (and many times it cannot), then the wise choice is to design and manage the work for individual performers rather than for an interacting work team.
And I thought these ideas complete each other. The synergy should not only be found in the final product, but it is also to be found in the process of creating that product. Great teams are able to create results that surpass the linear combination of all their members and the losses incurred by working as a team. These teams do it by complementing each other so each member is focused on his advantages and on contributing actual value in its own unique way. The true benefit of a team then (in some situation more than others) comes for the diversity of its members and their contribution. However, many of the managerial practices are aimed at eliminating these differences and creating homogeneity.
Would you want a cell in your brain to act like a cell in your foot? So why do you expect team member to act the same?