Making a Team Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Last Updated Jul 26, 2011 7:18 PM EDT

Making a Team Greater Than the Sum of Its PartsTake a lump of graphite - a bunch of carbon atoms - put it under enormous pressure for a long time, and you've got diamond, the hardest substance on Earth. That's nature's best example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Well, building a team that shares that attribute is just like making diamonds: it sounds straightforward in theory but it's really hard in practice and rare to find in the real world. If you've ever been part of a great team, you know that's true.

While it seems that anyone who's ever had a high-performing team has a formula for how to do it, replicating the process has proven illusive. Since no magic formula exists, I'm not here to offer you one.

But I can tell you one thing with great certainty. Creating a team that's greater than the sum of its parts is, to some extent, a function of certain leadership behavior.

It's all about the culture the leader creates, how he motivates and operates the team, and the kind of behavior his leadership style and management ability inspires in others. Of course, there are external factors that are out of the leader's control and, taken together, have significant impact on the outcome:
  • The team is usually part of a larger organization and God knows what's going on there that impacts the team, its goals, its ability to perform, its budget, etc.
  • When it's an executive management or marketing and sales management team, for example, there are all sorts of external market and competitive forces.
  • A team is composed of individuals with unique circumstances, experience, and capability. Some of that's manageable but by no means 100% controllable.
  • Luck.
I know; there are a lot of moving parts, which is why it's such a rare accomplishment. Nevertheless, it's ridiculously gratifying and there are things you can do to increase the odds of making your team greater than the sum of its parts:
  1. Give them a dramatic raison d'être, a reason for being. People love a good drama, especially if they're part of it. That usually includes a group identity of some sort, a hero (them), and an enemy. A young Steve Jobs gave Apple an enemy - Big Blue, aka IBM - and inspired the first Macintosh design team to "make a dent in the universe." Is it any wonder that they succeeded?
  2. Promote healthy conflict. Driving consensus or making decisions without allowing new and conflicting ideas into the picture is a big mistake leaders make, primarily because they lack self-confidence. A culture that breeds open conflict and sharing of ideas is essential for success, and that's what drives great teams.
  3. Give the right person the right job. Hire talented experts and give them the right jobs. That's one of the 15 Rules of Great Groups, according to Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman. We always say surround yourself with brilliant people with diverse perspectives, but what good is it if you don't organize them in a way that facilitates accomplishing the group's goals?
  4. Make them part of the process. If you going to have stars on the team, then make them part of the process of how the team operates. That doesn't mean abdicate your responsibility as leader. At the end of the day, it's your call, and you have to be confident in that role. Think Knights of the Round Table: everyone had a say, but there was only one leader.
  5. Encourage them to take risks. Smart, calculated risks, that is. Challenge the boundaries of their comfort zones and encourage them to do the same on their own. That means you can't chop their heads off for trying and failing. After all, confidence may come from success, but wisdom comes from failure.
  6. Give them what they need, free them from the rest. Also from the Bennis and Biederman book, it's your job to not only give them what they need, but also to save them from political BS and unnecessary meetings. Feeling like they have some measure of control will help them focus on achieving their common goals.
  7. Make them feel special. There's a certain childlike ego-boost from feeling like you're special compared with all the other children that seems to give people some sort of license to innovate in unique ways. While I believe that's essential, don't take it too far or your team will fail to integrate with the rest of the company. It's a balancing act.
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