I want to keep this simple, so let’s start with a little quantum physics.

In physics, a two-body problem describes the motion of two objects that interact only with each other. Picture two stars orbiting each other, each exerting a gravitational pull on the other. The math to describe a two-body problem is simple for physicists — but add just one more star and the math becomes all but unsolvable.

Three-body problems can’t be solved, only approximated. It’s that hard to describe and model the movement of three stars that are all moving and pulling on each other in space. Now make it ten or fifty or a hundred trillion stars…it’s beyond unsolvable.

Building a great team reminds me of the three body problem. Hiring a single great person is challenging enough: finding them, getting the timing just right for them to switch jobs, selling them on your company, making the numbers work, and so on. Hiring a whole team of great people is that much harder. But a team of great individuals who are even greater together?

It’s so uncommon that the teams that pull it off can become legendary:

The Manhattan Project team; IBM’s infamous Black Team of the 1960s; the PayPal Mafia; Disney’s Nine Old Men…and, obviously, the ’92 Dream Team.

What is it about these teams that makes them so unstoppable? In a nutshell: talent and accountability.

The Key Ingredient: Accountability among Peers

The best team I’ve ever been a part of was also the most enjoyable group I’ve worked with in my career. It was a fun group and everyone was great in their respective lanes. But I was most impressed the first time they fired someone.

A new engineer wasn’t cutting it and was slowing others on the team down. They gave her several chances to improve before they let her go when things didn’t get better. Firing people is no fun, but the manager put the needs of the team first and didn’t think twice about making the call.

Talent is a must. Hustle is important. Chemistry is too. But the signature of a great team is peers who hold each other accountable for producing great work.

It’s easy as a manager to tell a subordinate to up their game. On the other hand, telling a peer they can and must do better takes both a delicate touch as well as a willingness to speak up even when it’s uncomfortable. Teams that do this don’t need managers to crack the whip, because they do it themselves. Under-performers have nowhere to hide; the team’s immune system expels them on its own.

Besides making work fun, the reason team chemistry matters is that it keeps things light even when people are constantly pushing each other. Lots of teams can have fun together at happy hour. It’s another thing for teams to still enjoy each other’s company when they don’t settle for anything less than the best from each other. When you achieve that harmony of personalities and abilities, there’s little a team can’t accomplish.

If you have a team like this, count yourself lucky. Give them clear guidance, and then get out of their way.


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