When the Sum is Greater Than Its Parts
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus
Anyone who has made it past their first math lesson in arithmetic can probably tell us that the mathematical equation we started out with is entirely wrong. Or is it?
If you ask us, it all depends on the context you are dealing with.
Aristotle is credited with saying something along the lines of, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Some could probably argue that Aristotle’s quote had a little more to do with his explanation of definitions than with mathematical equations—but that’s another argument for another time.
Nevertheless, in modern society, we often turn to this quote to help us describe how a high-performing team tends to operate.
If you have ever personally been on or worked with a high-performing team, you probably understand the phenomenon we are describing. It is similar to the T.E.A.M. acronym that tends to be popular in today’s culture. You know the one: together everyone achieves more.
The bottom line we are trying to draw is this: when a group of individuals come together and work in a coordinated effort, the collective output is greater than what they could have done individually, working alone.
In the physical world, we can use the term emergence to explain the effect we are talking about.
Emergence is when a system produces properties that the parts do not possess on their own. Or rather, what parts of a system do together that they could not or would not do on their own.
This phenomenon is present in physical science, sociology, biology, and truly, most other types of scientific disciplines if you look hard enough. There are actually entire realms of science devoted to trying to figure out what may be the emergence of several systems when they come into contact with each other. (The term for that is unintended consequences).
So, if we can agree that this phenomenon is both powerful and useful, the challenge becomes understanding how we can replicate it so that we can harness its amazing properties.
The Power of Teams
Patrick Lencioni, a writer and speaker who specializes in leadership and teamwork, has authored 13 books on business management. Though he writes on a variety of subjects, his books dealing with teams are some of the most read. Some of his books, like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Ideal Team Player, are considered must-reads for anyone trying to leverage better team dynamics.
In The Ideal Team Player, Lencioni lists the three virtues of an ideal team player:
Humble: Humility is the single greatest and most indispensable attribute of being a team player.
Hungry: Hungry people almost never have to be pushed by a manager to work harder because they are self-motivated and diligent.
Smart: Smart simply refers to a person’s common sense about other people, or rather, their emotional intelligence.
What Lencioni’s research reveals about the three virtues is that humble, hungry, and smart people are not made powerful and unique because of these individual characteristics—rather, it is the required combination of all three.
In other words, he is introducing emergence while explaining what makes an ideal team player!
The Team Phenomenon In Reverse
If we could hypothetically gather up a few of these ideal players and put them all on a team together, we would certainly be able to replicate the team phenomenon—right?
Not necessarily (not yet anyway).
We have all undoubtedly experienced mixing two good things together but ultimately getting a bad (and maybe even gross) result.
Think about it.
Most people would consider orange juice to be a fabulous choice when it comes to breakfast beverages. Even more people would likely think that using a delicious, minty toothpaste to brush away their morning breathe (and germs and plaque, too, OK) is a wonderful start to the morning.
Separate, these two things make for a great morning routine. Together, well—if you have ever sat down to drink a glass of OJ after a minty-fresh toothpaste session, you do not need us to tell you how terribly unpleasant that combination is.
The point here? There are a lot of things that are great on their own—but if you mix them together with other great things, there is no guarantee the combination is going to be good. It can even end up being an exceptionally bad thing (we hope you are not still having flashbacks to your last OJ + toothpaste experience). The result is the Team Phenomenon happening in reverse.
Dynamite Happens! But How?
So, how can we avoid the reverse of the Team Phenomenon, and further, how can we tell what things can be mixed together to form a positive output that is greater than the sum of its parts?
In Lencioni’s best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he explains what must be present to take talented people in order to group them as a team that will result in the phenomenon.
We present to you the opposite of the dysfunctions:
Presence of Trust: The individuals must be comfortable with being vulnerable with each other and know without a doubt that the other team members have their back.
Healthy Conflict: The individuals must be able to discuss and express their unique views without fear of harming the team. Communication is the key.
Presence of Commitment: Once the plan is made, all members are 100% on board with executing the plan.
Presence of Accountability: There must be no ambiguity of what the plan of action is so that each member can do their respective role without hindrance or delay.
Attention to results: There must be collective attention to the team’s results—not individual contributions or personal needs.
Ultimately, here’s the formula:
People who are humble, hungry, smart (emotional intelligence)
Work in a context of trust, healthy respect for differences of opinions, commitment to each other and the plan, holding each other accountable to what was agreed upon, and staying focused on the outcome instead of individual needs = Team Phenomenon
One of the most prolific and successful musicians of our modern era created an environment just like the one we are describing. Because of this phenomenon, millions of fans have enjoyed music that would have never existed if it were not for the concept of 1+1+1=5. We're talking about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
They have been together for over 45 years. Bruce explained it like this while telling the story of why they wrote the song Ghosts: “A rock band is a social unit based on the premise that all of us together are greater than the sum of our individual parts. That we can achieve something that we could not achieve alone. And that together, higher ground awaits. While in our band, the songs and individual vision are mine, the physical creation of that vision into a real-world presence belongs to all of us. We are a band. The joy I feel when I work with my band is a hard thing to describe. Ideas tumble around the room. People talk over one another. There are false starts and stops. Confusion often reigns — and then suddenly; dynamite happens! Ghosts is about the beauty and the joy of being in a band and the pain of losing one another to illness and time. It tries to speak to the spirit of the music itself- something none of us owns but can only discover and share together. In the E Street Band, it resides in our collective soul, powered by the heart!”
Would we not all want to be in a band or on a team that can create this type of synergy?
You cannot just run out the door and expect to find a team like this. First, it is your job to ensure that YOU are the ideal team player. If you are a leader of people, it is your job to ensure that the five dysfunctions of a team are NOT present.
Then, make room for the dynamite to happen—just as Bruce described!
At The Joshua Group Consulting, we strive to come together as individual business owners and join into a team (or band, if you will - check us out here!) to create beautiful solutions for you and your organizations.
If you have questions about this topic, want to learn about how to create and foster a phenomenal team, or simply want to chat, we encourage you to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We value your feedback and your comments—we look forward to hearing from you!