Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, December 6, 2021
By Neil Senturia
Do you want to be on a team or do you want to work on the project alone? Or put another way, are two heads better than one?
A new study from Wharton professor Duncan Watts dissects the issue and comes up with a seemingly simple answer. It depends on the complexity of the problem. His argument is that “simple tasks are best accomplished by individuals, while difficult ones are more efficiently completed by a group.”
I have several grandchildren and one in particular, Olivia, is a precocious 3-year-old, who has fully embraced the word “self,” as in “No, I do not want any help, I want to do it myself.” This demand is made regardless of the complexity of the task. Just like Watts says, the simple projects involving Legos she can ace easily and the more complicated ones, like cooking a four-course dinner, require her to grudgingly relent and accept some assistance from the other “team members,” known as parents.
Watts says that groups are more efficient than the most efficient individual, but only when the task is complex, not when it is simple. I take moderate objection to his thesis, because in my experience, what starts out simple often ends up not being that at all.
I know this from my coaching. The client says all I want to know is should I paint the house green or blue, when in fact the more urgent and relevant question is why did you build it, how are you going to sell it, who is the customer, and does it even need paint? In other words, when you start to peel an onion, your eyes can begin to water.
In software coding, it is common to work in teams of between three to eight, often with “pair programming” where two people work together at one workstation. Whatever the configuration, the idea of the lone genius has long been debunked.
Watts set up what seemed a simple problem, assigning students to dorm rooms. Initially, the single programmer was just as good as the teams. But when complexity arrived (gender, diversity, not enough rooms, eating habits, religion, etc.), the teams performed much better. “What we found is that where teams really shine is in terms of efficiency.” Coordinated manpower solved the problem more quickly than the individuals.
OK, let’s concede that a team effort in a company can generate faster solutions, with the additional benefit that teams “explore the space of possibilities more broadly.” So, how do you make up a team? If you have that answer readily at hand, please feel free to send it to the Padres. The problem in the team concept is that unless it is formed with the right people, or in the alternative comes together organically, you may end up with competition among the members, as well as potentially falling victim to group think, such that the internal conflicts outweigh the benefits. In military terms, which is better, a trained sniper or a battalion? In the end, it seems the answer is both.
From time to time, I am asked to be a “mentor,” one on one, with an individual. That only works if the individual is aware of the problem, and is all-in on seeking a solution.
I recently met with a woman founder with deep skills, high domain expertise, impeccable pedigree. Her problem was financing, specifically the last “valuation.” When she raised the first round, she had stumbled into some “dumb money,” but now that she needed more professional money, she found that the chickens were coming home to roost in a more modest coop, at a significantly lower valuation. We analyzed and she agreed with my assessment. My advice, take the new money, accept the dilution, and build your company. Better to be rich than queen. She agreed with me (to shut me up I suspect) and then went right back out to look for some more dumb money.
By contrast, when I work with a typical management team of perhaps five to six, what I find is that egos get left at the door and the CEO is much more likely to encourage and ultimately embrace the team’s business solution. He confirms his status as the leader by reaching for and supporting the consensus of the team.
Rule No. 691
We need better pitching.