The Whole Should Not Be Less Than The Sum of Its Parts

You have heard it ad nauseam—the bit about the whole being larger than the sum of its parts. We use it to describe the benefit of systems or why teams are better than just individuals working in groups.

So let's just recap: When do “things” become a system?

A system is the result of connecting things that are different.

Note that the critical words here are connection and diversity.

A box of nails does not constitute a system. All the things are exactly the same and they aren’t connected even if they are in the same box.

A computer is a system and so is a management team. One is mechanic and the other is organic. We’ll come back to the implications of that later.

But what we seem to forget is that it’s not a given that the whole will be more than the sum of the parts. Sometimes—quite often actually when we talk about teams—the whole turns out to be considerably less than the sum of the parts.

There’s potential for improvement in that case.

This happens when the system suppresses the individuality of each part. If it suffocates or inhibits the diversity of the things, they can no longer contribute their best and could, in a sense, just as well be nails.

The system must not only value the individuality and diversity of the parts in order for it to become a strong system, but must also be the enabler of strong connections across the system.

It’s your job as the team leader to make sure that the system does that.

Think about the Cold War Eastern-European communist regimes. As systems, they under-performed horribly. They restricted connection—communication—and suppressed individuality, effectively reducing citizens to unconnected nails.

Do you see where this is going?

In a team, the connection is—more than anything—about the quality of the relationships. If relationships are awkward or distrustful, connections are weak or worse, non-existent.

If on top of that, the team leader isn’t skillful in bringing out the best in people—their talents—then you end up with a seriously under-performing team.

What’s the primary reason a team doesn’t deliver a result or performance that’s equal to or—even better—more than the sum of its parts?

Lack of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the shared group norm where team members feel safe to take risks and say what they think, without fear of being judged or rejected.

When psychological safety is present, teams:

  • Embrace emotional discussions;
  • Share without fear of retaliation;
  • Engage in difficult conversations with each other;
  • Show empathy;
  • Commit to conversational turn-taking; and
  • Admit mistakes.

When psychological safety is present, team members think less about the potential negative consequences of expressing a new or different idea than they would otherwise. As a result, they speak up more  and are motivated to contribute and improve their team or company.

When we evaluate for ourselves if an environment is psychologically safe, we examine four elements:

  • Tribe (Do I belong?)
  • Rank (What is the hierarchy here?)
  • Expectations (What is going to happen? What must I do?)
  • Autonomy (What can I do?)

As a team leader, these are the elements that you need to work on consistently if you aim to create a productive system that ends up being more than the sum of its parts.


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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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