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What’s Better: Above-Average Team or Superstar?


I’m really bad at handing things off.

Have you ever had that problem? You create an event or build a business and then can’t trust anyone else to continue the work. You make a big impact, but you can’t sustain it because you can only do so much.

This is the downfall of a strong-link network.

Strong-Link Networks vs. Weak-Link Networks

In his fantastic new podcast, Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell recently explored the idea of strong-link networks versus weak-link networks, especially in higher education.

A strong-link network is when a few great people matter most.

A perfect example of a strong-link network is basketball. You can have below-average players on the court, but if you have a superstar, like a LeBron James, you can still have a winning team (see also: Cleveland Cavaliers).

A weak-link network is when an above-average group matters most.

According to economists Chris Anderson and David Sally, soccer is an example of a weak-link network. An above-average team has a better chance of winning (see also: Leicester City) than an average team with one superstar.

According to Gladwell, this framework even helps explain big ideas — such as why the Industrial Revolution started in England, where they had a large number of tinkerers, rather than in France or elsewhere, where they had a small number of very talented individuals.

Communities as Weak-Link Networks

Is community development a strong-link or weak-link network?

As I look around at placemakers and community activists, I go with weak-link network, or what I have called lean development.

It’s much easier to build excitement around a single event — say a TEDx event or a 1 Million Cups gathering — than to sustain that momentum across months, years, and decades. Given that community development is a long-term process, it’s important to develop people and an ecosystem.

In most communities, however, the investment is flipped. The most time and money is spent on attracting a few large companies, paying the salary of a few economic developers, or investing heavily in a few promotional efforts — while the least time and money is spent on supporting the majority of the community.

A weak-link approach demands that time and money focus on building up the community as a whole. This can be done through code bootcamps, network building among creators, or crowdsourcing development efforts.

Many of these efforts may fail, but their goal is to encourage someone to try. That person would then be experienced in creating community and invested in building the community in the long term.

A weak-link network of supporters and doers is the best ingredient for long-term success.

A community leader might burn out, move away, or simply not have time to do everything. These leaders can immediately alter the course of a community. However, a crowdsourced effort is more likely to have the long-term impact the community is looking for.

Businesses as Weak-Link Networks

Our businesses may very well be the same.

A small core of strong-link leaders can help a company get off the ground and lead it through growth, but a sustainable company has a skilled team. If someone leaves or is added to the team, the team maintains its standards and continues to develop its expertise.

For a business, acknowledging the importance of a skilled team might mean providing education opportunities for everyone (not just executives), profit-sharing, or hosting hackathons to encourage employees to think of themselves as leaders.

Consultants and businesses that rely on a few masters are definitely strong-link networks. This model can be incredibly effective and profitable, but it is more difficult to maintain in the long term.

If you want to be a solopreneur or build a tool without providing services, consider a strong-link model. A perfect example is Instagram, which scaled to 150 million users with only six engineers. If you have six superstar engineers, it’s possible.

If you want a business that lasts 100 years, however, you want a weak-link network. As Martin Reeves notes in the video below, the average lifespan of a public company in the US.. is just 30 years, and employees can expect only 15 years in their current company. What’s more, there’s a 30% chance that your business will fail in five years.

Surviving these odds requires businesses to focus on six key principles, including adaptation and diversity. What Reeves has found in his research is that the same techniques that enable organisms in nature to adapt and survive are the same traits our businesses require for a long lifespan. These techniques are best pursued with a weak-link network.

A weak-link business model means you will develop a team. Think of your company as a sports team that finds young, unknown players and combines them with aging players past their prime to create an above-average team.

Find ambitious, talented employees (maybe millennials) who will grow into above-average colleagues and, eventually, superstars. The superstars will lead departments, while your newer employees will provide the weak-link network you need to maintain quality while growing your business.

How I Learned to Value Weak Links

I used to worry about the future of 9 Clouds.

I worried that if I won the lottery and moved to Norway, 9 Clouds would have to shut off its lights and archive its blog posts.

Now, however, I have none of those worries. We have built a team that is world-class and cares about the quality of our work and the work of our clients. I know that this weak-link network is bigger than any one of us.

Maybe, in the end, I am slowly learning how to hand things off. Our new 1 Million Cups team in Brookings is going through its second transition, yet it marches on. 9 Clouds continues to grow and march on.

Having a robust team doesn’t make me want to leave 9 Clouds — on the contrary. It makes me feel like I am slowly learning that the best way for an individual to succeed is to build a long bench of talented supporters.

Start Building Your Weak-Link Network

Your community will be stronger with a weak-link network.

Each week, we share big ideas on how to build your networks for business and community. We would love for you to join us.

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Banner image: Charlie