How do you solve a weakest link?

“The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.” – John Foster Dulles

Today’s post examines your options if you find yourself managing a team in a weakest-link environment.

Teams are interesting things, full of all sorts of dynamics and relationships. Some hum along wonderfully, efficient and smooth, with output exceeding the sum of the parts. Others are plagued with dysfunction and struggle to keep up with even the most limited of expectations.

Most fall somewhere in-between.

A team’s effectiveness is also somewhat dependent upon the environment in which it operates. This topic alone has spawned many books, but for today’s post I’m going to take a simplified view: in some environments, the team’s effectiveness is disproportionately influenced by its strongest member; in others, the team’s effectiveness is disproportionately influenced by its weakest member.

These latter environments are quite common, and pop up everywhere from  small teams in any average business to entire national economies (where they’ve spawned the O-Ring Theory of Economic Development).

As a leader or manager, what do you do if you find yourself at the helm of a team in a weakest-link environment?

As it turns out, soccer is a weakest-link system – that’s right, your team’s success is influenced more by your weakest player (no matter what position) than by that high-priced superstar the new owners brought in to calm the fan revolt.

For all of you thinking, “Another soccer post…well I just lost interest”, I say to you, “Stick around, because soccer gives us a fantastic world of empirical evidence that dwarfs whatever lame theoretical stuff you see elsewhere.”

For all of you thinking, “Another soccer post…well I just lost interest”, I say to you, “Stick around, because soccer gives us a fantastic world of empirical evidence that dwarfs whatever lame theoretical stuff you see elsewhere.”

In other words, soccer (and sports in general) let us test our different options and examine the real results.

In The Numbers Game (which I recently read and loved), Chris Anderson (a former goalkeeper turned Ivy League professor) and David Sally (a behavioral economist) dived deeply into the world of soccer.

Midway through the book, after analytically proving soccer to be a weakest-link game, they presented and examined the five options available to someone managing a team in this environment, who has to determine what to do minimize the negative impact of the weakest link. These same options apply to you, in your everyday work environments.

Option #1: Hide/ignore the weakest link

This approach is tempting due to its simplicity and its natural outcome in a competitive environment. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work.

This approach takes the weakest team member’s minimal contributions and turns them into a big zero. In a multiplicative process, these has an enormous negative impact on the team’s output.

The Numbers Game illustrates this point by examining teams’ performance after their weakest player receives a red card and has to exit the game. If eliminating the weak link entirely was the correct approach, then team performance should increase, but that is not the case.

In the business world, you can’t hand out red cards, but you can stop handing out assignments. Maybe you think, “It’s not worth the trouble to have X work on this, so I’ll give it to Y instead.” But this is the wrong move. Better to have X doing something than nothing.

No matter how weak the team member, simply eliminating him or her from the equation will only hurt your team’s performance.

No matter how weak the team member, simply eliminating him or her from the equation will only hurt your team’s performance.

Option #2: Face reality, provide reinforcement

The second option available to managers is to get other team members to help out by covering for the weak link’s weaknesses.

This approach is a viable option in the short term, and when done strategically.

Over the long term, it will gradually contribute to a decline in potential output from the rest of the team (who are expending energy and losing time to provide the reinforcement), and will likely breed resentment (of the “Why do I always have to cover for X?” variety).

However, if there’s a project coming up for which you can prepare a reinforcement strategy as a stop-gap, then it’s a worthwhile approach.

“When the weak link is reinforced not through improvisation but through well-planned strategy, results tend to be rather more impressive.” (The Numbers Game – p233)

Option #3: Substitution!

OK, this one’s probably not quite as viable in the so-called ‘real’ ‘world’, but let’s have some fun and run with it.

In competitive/professional soccer, each team can make up to three substitutions a game. So, as players start to fatigue or pick up injuries, or the manager decides to change tactics, up to three players will get replaced by, presumably, more suitable (e.g., fresh, uninjured, different skill-sets) players.

I suppose a parallel in business would be swapping someone out of a project, either within your own team or by snagging someone from a different team.

It turns out that in soccer substitutions, timing is everything: too early, and things haven’t had a chance to play out yet; too late, and there isn’t enough time to make a difference. That part likely applies to the business world, too: give people a chance, but then be decisive.

Option #4: Try to improve the weakest link

“A  really good manager will take his weak link under his wing, give him the benefit of all his wisdom, and make him a better player. In broad terms, there are two categories of weakness – effort and skill. The first requires the manager to motivate, and the second to teach.” (The Numbers Game – p241)

Alright, we’re back to things that directly apply in the non-sports world.

Option #4a: Get the weakest link to work harder

“In addition to inspiring speeches, kicks to the seat of the pants, and punishing drills, the smart manager, often unwittingly, will use the Köhler effect to increase the effort of his weak links.” (The Numbers Game – p241)

I hadn’t heard of the Köhler effect, but I’ve seen it in action. Anderson and Sally explain its origins on p242:

Through a very simple series of tests performed on members of the Berlin rowing club, Köhler had demonstrated that teamwork could produce significant gains in motivation. First, he tested how long each standing rower could, while holding and curling a bar connected to a weight of about 90 pounds, keep the weight from touching the floor.

Then he doubled the weight, paired the rowers and tested how long they could curl the heavier bar together. This is a weak-link task because the weight was too great for any single person to hold up: the 180 pounds would hit the floor when the weaker partner’s biceps gave out. Köhler found that weaker rowers would endure significantly longer when they were paired than when they were solo. In doing so, he had isolated one of the key characteristics of psychology: the gain in enthusiasm and effort and perseverance that comes from being on a team.

It was not until the 1990s that psychologists began to investigate the reasons behind Köhler’s findings. They found two causes for this effect: a social comparison process, where individuals perform better when working with a more capable partner, and an “indispensability” condition in which individuals do not want to hold back the group and feel that their contribution is crucial to collective performance. Or, to put it more bluntly, the Köhler effect occurs because weak links work harder to keep up, whether in an attempt to match their more talented colleagues or because they think their role is just as essential. These two factors are equally important in helping improve a weak link.

“The Köhler effect occurs because weak links work harder to keep up, whether in an attempt to match their more talented colleagues or because they think their role is just as essential. These two factors are equally important in helping improve a weak link.”

Neat stuff.

So, if you’ve diagnosed that (lack of) effort is the problem, and you want a weak link to work harder, then tap into his or her social comparison process and indispensability condition. There are many simple tactics that will help you in this approach:

  • Remind everyone on team that we’re all in this together
  • Share some of everyone’s successes publicly
  • Create objective team and individual metrics
  • Make sure everyone knows how the contributions of each individual are connected to those of everyone else
  • …and so on

Option #4b: Teach the weakest link new skills

In what should come as no surprise, many studies show that both increasing the average skill of a team and narrowing the spread of skill result in dramatic increases in team performance. The Numbers Game cites examples from both on and off the pitch.

I won’t bother to go about producing proof (but comment below if you remain unconvinced), and will instead conclude that you see the wisdom in adopting this strategic approach. To create a culture of knowledge sharing and skill development, you might turn to tactics including:

  • Regular knowledge transfers
  • Share lessons learned after a project is completed
  • Formal skill development and training programs
  • Groupings, pairings, etc. that informally expose people to new skills
  • …and so on
Option #5: Replace the weakest link

Whereas substitution is a temporary measure, replacement is a permanent one.

Many leaders and managers (myself included) have found themselves in this scenario, and it isn’t pleasant; but, for the good of the team, it might be the best option.

“Some weak links cannot be hidden or improved. Some players simply will not get better, no matter how much you try to help them. They will not learn from their peers, or be able to keep up with their teammates. Reinforcing them may weaken other areas of your side, and there are only so many times a player can be substituted. That leaves just one solution.” (The Numbers Game – p248)

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Posted in Books, Leadership, Management, Soccer, Sports
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