Is a great team more than the sum of its players? Complexity science reveals the role of strategy, synergy, swarming and more
Jessica Flack is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and director of the Collective Computation Group at SFI.
Cade Massey is a practice professor in the Wharton School’s Operations, Information and Decisions Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives outside of Austin, Texas.
Edited by Sally Davies
‘We know,’ Runciter said to GG, ‘that as individuals they perform well. It’s all down here on paper.’ He rattled the documents on his desk. ‘But how about together? How great a polyencephalic counter-field will they generate together? Ask yourself that, GG. That is the question to ask.’
– From Ubik (1969) by Philip K Dick
In Philip K Dick’s classic science fiction novel Ubik, one of the main characters, Runciter, is in charge of assembling a team of individuals called ‘inertials’. The hope is that they will counteract the power of ‘precogs’ and ‘telepaths’, recruited by corporations to carry out espionage and other nefarious activities. Each inertial is a superstar with a unique talent – but Runciter’s concern is their collective power.
Interest in collective behaviour is not new. It’s been the research subject of organisation scholars, anthropologists, economists, ethologists studying group-living animals and evolutionary biologists interested in the evolution of cooperation. And, of course, it’s the chief occupation of coaches and managers building teams across a wide range of sports. Although many of us believe a team is more than just the sum of its outstanding individual performers, this kind of simple-minded thinking still dominates recruitment and team assembly in sports, finance, academia and other settings.
Part of the reason why recruiters and others resort to going after the best players rather than building the best team is that it remains unclear what other factors contribute to team greatness, and how to quantify them. Moreover, simply recruiting the best players is fairly straightforward, and some analyses suggest this approach might even be the most reliable: as the sociologist Duncan Watts and colleagues argued, overall talent level is often the single best predictor of team performance. Yet we shouldn’t be lured into thinking overall talent is the best predictor because it is the most important factor. It might be the best predictor because we’re not yet good at capturing the nuance of collective dynamics. Hints that this could be the case come from studies such as that of the management scholar Satyam Mukherjee and colleagues, in which they found that prior shared success can predict performance above and beyond what would be expected from the group’s composition and talent.
These seemingly at-odds results raise the question: how does a collective work exactly? When is it more than the sum of its parts? The increasing availability of data on individual decision-making across the social sciences, coupled with how complexity science is improving our understanding of the mechanics of group performance, are changing what’s possible. Some of the questions that can now be answered include how a team synchronises, when contributions are synergistic as opposed to additive, and whether it’s the players’ skill or the strategies they use that’s more important. Before we get to promising future directions, though, it’s worth considering the existing space of ideas about what makes a good team, as well as some scenarios suggesting greater nuance is required.
In his book The Captain Class (2017), Sam Walker – deputy editor for enterprise at The Wall Street Journal – argues that a key to team performance is leadership, defined not by charisma but by the ability to resolve conflict and improve morale behind the scenes. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict proposed culture as a factor in human performance, writing in Patterns of Culture (1934):
No individual can arrive even at the threshold of his potentialities without a culture in which he participates. Conversely, no civilisation has in it any element which in the last analysis is not the contribution of an individual.
Michael Lombardi, a former executive at the US National Football League, echoes Benedict’s point in his book Gridiron Genius (2018). Lombardi proposes that the New England Patriots’ dynasty, and the success of their quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, are due in large part to meticulous micromanagement of every detail of recruitment, scheduling, training and play. In the case of the Patriots and other football dynasties such as Nick Saban’s Alabama teams, this focus on institutions and process is so pronounced as to give the impression that players could be swapped in or out, with little change to outcomes…