Weak link versus strong link teams


Photo by Shaojie on Unsplash

My first exposure to the concept of weak versus strong-link teams was from Malcolm Gladwell's excellent Revisionist History podcast (series 1, episode 6). It comes from a book by David Sally and Chris Anderson (The Numbers Game). They asked what matters more if you want to build an excellent soccer team (that's football to anyone outside the United States)? How good your best player is, or how good is your worst player?


Based on Sally and Anderson's research - with soccer, its the worst player that is the most important because "...mistakes turn out to be a very important part of soccer as a team sport." The weakest players on the pitch more often make mistakes. The worst member of the team can altogether cancel out the best, most talented player.


Soccer is a weak-link game


Basketball is the opposite end of the spectrum. Apparently (I am no expert on this sport), with basketball it doesn't matter how good your fifth player is, its how good your superstar is!


Basketball is a strong-link game


Are you operating in a weak-link business where the "malfunctioning part" can cause expensive mistakes to occur? Like football (see I reverted to type, it pains me to call it soccer), a human error or perhaps an inefficient process, or poor communication between teams working out of offices separated by time zones and different languages can offset the wins created by a star salesperson.


Or are you operating in a strong-link environment where the performance of the best, and most talented people have the most substantial impact on the business outcomes and results?


In financial and professional services, I would posit there has been a tendency to reward (fastest promotions, the largest bonuses, share of profits) behaviours that are consistent with the strong-link assumption. Further support for the strong-link argument is that more often than not, the investment in people development is highly selective and not broadly applied. The highest potential Associates, the newly promoted Consultants, the Director level professionals most likely to be promoted to Partner or Managing Director, get sent on the training courses or receive mentors or coaching. And hence, in many respects, it becomes a privileged form of personal development.


In a more utopian world where lean employment policies and shrinking training budgets don't exist then obviously investments could be more broadly applied. But the reality is that professionals operate in is a much more challenging environment where tough decisions get made about how to allocate scarce resources.


Should that tough decision be to switch from strong-link to weak link for investments in people development?


What would happen if the mindset changed, and the assumption was these are weak-link businesses? I don't pretend to have the answer but it deserves a conversation or two...

  • Bruised egos - check

  • Awkward conversations between those used to receiving the attention - check

  • Team effectiveness and impact higher or lower - ?

  • Long-term profits generated by the business higher or lower - ?


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