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Do You Know the Magical Number of a Team?

Charles Darwin once said that “in the history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively prevailed.”

The drive to form groups and collaborate is indeed part of human nature. Early on, humankind figured out that staying together significantly increased its chance of survival. A group of hunters, for instance, could chase its (solitary) prey to exhaustion, corner it and take it down easier as a team. It also realized that instead of making use of one set of skills at a time, groups were able to assign roles such as farmers, hunters and builders – and save time. These primal instincts, passed on from generation to generation, can still be of use today.

In today’s corporate world, one can’t get around teamwork. Whether it is collaborating on a project, hosting an event or contacting customers – groupwork is everywhere. But what makes a team successful? Business journalists Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone have discovered a significant ingredient for successful team building: the number of people on a team.

Two’s a Charm

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In their literary collaboration Team Genius, the authors differentiate between pairs, trios, parties of four and larger groups. If lucky, humans form several strong bonds throughout their life cycle, whether those are with a partner, a friend or a work colleague. A pair is the strongest unit. However, even within this most stable of bonds an organization can face challenges.

When building teams at work, Karlgaard and Malone suggest pairing employees who complement each other. Complementing team members can be similar, opposites or anything in between. Professional pairings form within four categories:

1. Occasion Pairs– There are two types of occasion-based teams, the “Magic Moment” pairings and the “Chained Together by Success” teams. The former resemble a love story; the team mates know when they’ve found “the one,” and a harmonious and fruitful collaboration is in the works from the get-go.

The latter, however, are less optimistic. Chained partners may not necessarily like each other, but they make for great work. Each partner has a specific set of skills. Putting their skillsets together enables them to create meaningful work that they would be unable to accomplish on their own.

2. Similarity Pairs– All stars are aligned for similarity pairs. This pair is usually so alike that it resembles a happily married couple. The benefit? They know how to support each other, and can swap job duties if necessary.

3. Difference Pairs– “Yin and Yang” teams consist of either a creative and logical pairing, or an extrovert and an introvert. This pair is skills-centered and has a way of counterbalancing each other. “Counterweight” couplings, however, are centered around their members’ personalities. To succeed, this particular pair needs to find ways to communicate and overcome challenges.

4. Inequality Pairs– This category differentiates between “Force” pairs and “The Sword and the Shield” twosomes. Force pairs are collaborations between a mentor and a follower, in which the former passes on knowledge to his or her student.

The Sword and the Shield team, however, proves the trickier of the two as it pairs a strong individual with a weaker one. This coupling often forms when management staff refrain from supporting their employee’s career development. In this case, the stronger “hero” employee fights for the weaker one’s progress by sharing his or her expertise and hard-won cultural know-how.

The More the Merrier?

Smaller teams can be easier to manage than bigger ones. Karlgaard and Malone note that teams of two do not need a leader, yet teams of three or more require one. Trios need to form naturally – without the interference of leaders – or they will fall apart and go back to being a pair.

When building teams, remember that the right number of members is not the single ingredient for success. More important, make sure your team has the right mind-set, motivation and a joint purpose toward which they can work.

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