Synergy and Peak Performance

Having just completed the latest run of my ‘Managing People Effectively’ workshop, I was left thinking about how difficult it is to come up with a really good exercise to demonstrate or illustrate the concept of synergy. In my search of the internet trying to find a decent exercise, I have found many that purport to illustrate synergy, but they don’t really, in my opinion.

A typical ‘synergy’ exercise involves handing out some kind of quiz and then getting people to complete as many questions as possible, individually. Then, you get them to work together to complete the whole thing. For me, this kind of exercise demonstrates that two heads are better than one.  That’s true, of course, and I do sometimes use this kind of exercise in the absence of having a good alternative, but it does not really begin to demonstrate what synergy is all about.

Synergy is where one plus one makes three or four or five or more, whereas the above exercise really only demonstrates that one plus one can, and usually does, equal two. The best demonstration of synergy that I can think of, at least for classroom situations, is the analogy of a chemical reaction. For example, like the reaction that takes place when you combine brake fluid and chlorine. Guess what happens when you do that? You get fire! Yes – amazing, but true. If you want to see the reaction for yourself go here.

The well known definition of synergy, of course, is when the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. It happens when you combine ingredients and the combination somehow produces what can only be described as a kind of magic. It is what separates effective teams from peak performing teams. It is the reason that average players can produce above average results. It is why Denmark won the Euro 1992 competition after failing to qualify for it, and only getting into the competition after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Synergy is what happens when you take a young Liverpool lad who writes melodious songs with drivel in place of lyrics and combine him with another Liverpool youngster who writes punchy lyrics, though perhaps less melodious songs. That combination is of course Lennon and McCartney and they not only wrote extraordinarily good songs, they also demonstrated synergy in their performances with an amazing ability to harmonise and produce their special blend of magic that gave the Beatles their uniquely recogniseable and individual sound.

Another great example of synergy is the combination of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. Consider  what they managed to achieve at both Derby County and Nottingham Forest. Nottingham Forest rose from comparative mediocrity (with all due respect to anyone connected with the club) to become European Champions, for two years running, despite not having the best players in the world – that’s synergy within the Forest team itself. Similarly, the Clough/Taylor combination produced its own magic too. Together they were unbeatable, for a period; apart, neither of them really did very well.

Synergy can happen when we are working in a team because of the way in which our strengths and weaknesses can be channelled. In a peak-performing team, our strengths are made productive and our weaknesses get cancelled out by the strengths of the remainder of the team. That’s how Brian Clough and Peter Taylor achieved their astonishing successes with Derby and Forest and how Lennon and McCartney moulded the Beatles into world-class artists and that’s also how it is possible for almost any team to become great. Yes, really!

Now, I understand that some people will object to this idea. They will say that it’s just not true that any team can become great. Of course, it’s true that you need to have competent individuals in the team in the first place. But the thing is that you really don’t need to have a team of exceptional individuals. You don’t need to be a Barcelona. You can be a Nottingham Forest. In fact, it is possible to acquire all the very best individuals and still not get a peak-performing team; remember Chelsea did this before Murino took over.

So, if you are a team leader or manager, I hope this post encourages you to think about exactly what it is possible for you and your team to achieve. Open you mind to the possibility of your team winning the very top prize – whatever that represents for you. Know that you may not really be that far away from achieving your wildest dreams. Remember the chemical reaction and understand that you might just be one simple ingredient short of starting a metaphorical fire.

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