The Sum is bigger than the parts


The setup

Currently I am reading the fantastic Reinventing Organization by Frederic Laloux. It is a book that resonates greatly with me, because some of the basic tenets of the book are ideas that I have been developing on my own through the years (it helps also that I am self motivated and interested enough to fully take advantage of them). As part of ruminating through what was talked about in the book I started to think about sports and certain teams that I have seen.

Team sports

In 2004, a Detroit Pistons team without superstars (Rashid Wallace was the closest they had) defeated in 5 games, on the NBA finals, a Lakers team that had 4 future Hall of Famers (the 4th will go in as soon as he is eligible).

In 2004, as well, an unheralded Greek national team won the Euro 2004, beating on the way some talented teams like Spain, France and Portugal.

In 2016, Leicester pulled one of the greatest surprises in team sports when they won the English Premier League. The whole team cost was less than Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne.

In all three cases, what those teams created was greater than what the individual players provided.

Roles in team sports

In 2016 Kevin Durant joined a great team, Golden State Warriors, which then became, probably, the greatest offensive team ever in the NBA. This worked because the Splash Brothers are, above all, team players and are happy to not be the center of the team if needed and play off ball when that increases the chances of the team winning.

Before that Chris Bosh had to reinvent himself to provide the spacing in the Miami Heat needed for Lebron James and Dwayne Wade.

Is interesting that, although basketball has nominally 5 positions there are some roles (scorer, distributor, …) that can change, depending on the personnel, the other team, phase of the game or some other circumstances.

In football, positions and roles have their own variance. Fullbacks at top level teams are not responsible for just defense, but also for providing attacking options. Karim Benzema has played for years as the nominal striker for Real Madrid, thought during the years that Cristiano Ronaldo was in the team, Benzema’s work was more about creating space and linking with Ronaldo. After Ronaldo was gone, his main role went back to providing mainly goals for the team (which he has done in the last two years and a half).

There is totaalvoetbal(Total Football): the idea that any outfield player can take any role in the team. Though Ajax and the national Dutch team of the 70s will be always associated with it, other teams used it before (Austria’s Wunderteam, River Plate’s La Máquina, Hungary’s Aranycsapat) and after (Barcelona following what they call Cruyffism).

The exact role of a player can be something fluid, and the ability to perform multiple roles allow greater flexibility to a team.


Another interesting point out here is that teams in football, basketball and other team sports, barely there is any formal hierarchy. They have captains in football. Position doesn’t determine a formal hierarchy, there is no being captain because you play in a certain position. Basketball doesn’t even have captains. There is no pre-ordained leader.

Of course, informal hierarchies do exist. Because of their history, their efforts, their abilities, or some other considerations, some players will be listened to more than others. Which, as it happens, coincide with a saying of mine: A Tech lead (of a team) is not chosen, it emerges. Is the person everyone goes to ask for help. Which, by the way, doesn’t mean the person with the most knowledge is the one everyone goes to: an abrasive personality tends to create a person that needs to be avoided at all time … which is a massive blocker/issue for any team.

There is the question of the coach, who is the person in charge of strategy and tactics, which seems to establish a strongly hierarchical position. But is not always the case. There are multiple stories of players giving up on a coach, especially the drill-Sargent type (both Mourinho and Bielsa tend to burn their teams). And then you have the ones that they call player-managers, coaches like Vicente Del Bosque, or Carlo Ancelotti, who manage to be flexible to extract the best of their players.

Formal hierarchy

There has been a joke text circulating in Spain for years, which you can find here and translated to English. Always found it both amusing and reflective of the reality that I have seen.

Formal hierarchies get in the way of creating a team that is bigger than the sum of the parts. In a formal hierarchy, used in nearly all companies I have seen, everything needs to go through the hierarchy, and ideas can only come from the top. Furthermore, the roles in a hierarchy are so constrained that is not my job is common place … except for the micromanagers, which are in itself an even bigger issue. If you have intelligent, even wise, people working with/for you and you constrain their abilities, you are doing the company (and them) a disservice. You are kneecapping the ability of the company.

I’ve been in positions of seniority for a while, but thinking that I have all the answers and I have all the good ideas would be preposterous of me. And, of course, I have my collection of cases where I have been shown to be wrong or misguided by more “junior” people than me. Yet I have seen people dismiss good ideas from others because their position in the hierarchy (and we don’t even go into the whole -ism issues).

Under a formal hierarchy a team will never be bigger than the sum of the parts, the hierarchy will become a barrier to achieve it. That doesn’t mean a team/company with strong hierarchy cannot be successful, but will never realize their full potential.

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