The modern concept of synergy was proposed by chemists. They discovered that every time they separated atoms or molecules from a complex compound, the behavior of the separate parts could never explain the behavior of all of them interconnected. For example, the chemical behaviors of isolated hydrogen (H2) and isolated oxygen (O2) do not offer any kind of information about the chemical behavior of water (H2O). Chemist called this principles synergy, a form of collective transmutation that allowed for endless research and innovation in chemistry.
By the same token, in modern organizational theory, synergy means much more than “working together.” Synergy is actually a systemic principle that explains how a team’s collective performance is unpredictable based solely on its member’s individual performances. Therefore, a team’s collective performance can be either better or worse than the sum of its members’ individual performances. This introduces a level of risk that is widely overlooked by most authors and that holds the key to understanding organizational success versus organizational failure. This is why we must talk about positive synergy versus negative synergy and how to pursue the former while avoiding the latter.
Positive synergy vs. negative synergy
Going back to chemistry for just a moment, we know that if we add sulfur (S8) to a controlled environment already containing water (H2O), given the right temperature and pressure conditions we can turn said water into sulfuric acid (H2SO4). In other words, we can transform a life-giving substance, water, into a destructive one, sulfuric acid. This is a metaphor to show how positive synergy can be turned into negative synergy by adding the “wrong” element. In teamwork, the same can happen.
In this regard, introducing the “wrong” person into a team can have devastating effects on performance. Achieving and sustaining positive synergy is a very complex task, and it starts with hiring the right people. Of course, positive synergy depends also on good leadership and other ongoing people-management processes. However, anyone who has ever had real team leadership responsibilities knows that hiring the wrong person is far worse than not hiring the right person. Figuratively speaking, it is a lot more difficult to turn a piece of carbon into a diamond than to continue to mine for actual diamonds. The question is, then, what should organizations do to achieve positive synergy?
The chemistry of teamwork
I have found that, just as the numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons define the potential for chemical synergy, the combination of common interests, common values, and complementary talents defines the potential for team synergy. Let us explore each of these factors further.
- Common interests.When people share common interests, they align their individual efforts toward the same goal. More specifically, they find personal affinities that help them work together, seek opportunities to leverage each other’s talents, and measure the results of their collective efforts with respect to their common goal.
- Common values.When people share common values, they can forge strong, long-lasting alliances. More specifically, I have found that people who share the values of humility, honesty, trust, and discipline achieve the highest synergies.
- Humilityis the capacity to acknowledge one’s own truth. This allows every team member to have a clear image of the self and address all personal growth and professional development needs in a timely fashion.
- Honestyis the capacity to share one’s own truth with others. This allows team members to know each other more closely, develop trust, help each other, and carry out team improvement initiatives with further reach.
- Trustis the ability to focus on one’s task while letting others focus on theirs, thus optimizing efforts. Equally, trust also allows for team members to check up on each other to make sure all tasks remain aligned with the common goal. Likewise, trust leads naturally to loyalty and solidarity.
- Disciplineis the ability to continue to work toward a goal regardless of the circumstances. Discipline requires commitment, courage, resilience, and drive.
- Complementary talents. When people have complementary talents, they can overcome adversity, stay focused, and achieve success more efficiently. In my professional opinion, every team’s ideal portfolio of talents is masterfully summarized in Dr. Ichak Adizes’s famous PAEI Model. PAEI stands for Producer, Administrator, Entrepreneur, and Integrator. Not one person will have all four talents. Even the so-called Renaissance men or women, known for being multi-talented, will hardly be able to develop and apply all talents successfully within a team. Everyone needs help and teamwork is based on team members helping each other. Below, each talent in detail.
- Producers focus on the end result and make sure the final product or service meets all customer or client expectations. Producers are ultimately responsible for quality facing the market so they will make sure all other team members understand the importance thereof.
- Administrators focus on how the tasks are completed and make sure all other team members are in compliance with current policies, procedures, mandates, and guidelines. They are ultimately responsible for the overall sustainability, effectiveness, and efficiency of the organizational system.
- Entrepreneurs focus on envisioning and creating the future. They are inspired and inspiring. They often come up with new ideas about products, services, and ways to do everyday task. They are essentially behind every major innovation and are ultimately responsible for helping organizations stay current, move forward, and introduce market- disruptive innovations.
- Integrators focus on bringing people together and helping build personal and functional bridges among all team members. They are ultimately responsible for creating an organizational culture based on the vision and values shared by all team members.
When all the aforementioned factors are in synch, team synergy will most likely be positive. However, when they are out of synch, team synergy will most likely be negative. Consequently, in order to achieve positive synergy, organizational leaders must make sure their organization’s vision, values, and talent portfolio are aligned with each other and with market needs. Furthermore, organizational leaders must make sure their recruiting and leadership practices support such alignment.
What do you think?
Have you ever been part of a synergic relationship? Have you ever achieved positive synergy with your work team? What do the 11 laws of systems thinking have to do with seeking, achieving, and sustaining positive synergy? Have you ever experienced negative synergy? In your experience, what are the main obstacles to achieving positive synergy?
Originally published on Forbes.com.