Let me run an idea past you.
Consider two sports: basketball and football. In basketball an individual player can make a stark difference to the overall performance of a team. A star can single-handedly take charge of a game and frequently score with little help from others. Conversely, a seriously underperforming player can have quite a limited effect on the team’s chances of winning. This particular game can be more influenced by the impact of the top players rather than the contribution from those less gifted.
But in football, where many games are won or lost by a single goal, a player who is playing particularly badly can often make the difference. He can make a defensive mistake that costs a goal, or, after a series of eight sublime passes, fail to control a pass that otherwise would have led to scoring, negating all the good play up to that point. Football is a game that tends to revolve around errors, and the teams who make the fewest do the best.
David Sally and Chris Anderson, in their book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong, describe this as a strong link versus weak link problem. Their hypothesis is that football is a weak link game. The prowess of the team is highly dependent on the abilities of the weakest player, rather than the strongest player. Their research showed that if teams spent more money upgrading their weakest players instead of spending multi-millions on superstars they would score more goals, concede fewer and thereby win more games.
Messi versus Jordan.
Take two superstar players as examples. In basketball, Michael Jordan could rack up huge scores, and could do that largely on his own. He could pick up the ball, break through double-team markings and reliably score. Lots: over 30 points a game. Now, think of an equivalent football player - Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest football player ever. When everything aligns, he can produce moments of transcendental brilliance that take him from one end of the pitch to the other with no assistance and score a goal that witnesses will remember forever, but this is a rarity. More often than not, despite being a prolific scorer (91 goals in a record-breaking 2011/12 season), he requires a series of passes from other great players to create the chances for him to score. Football teams do best in the absence of weak links, whereas a game like basketball is more dependent on the strong links.
Targeting Investment based on the idea of weak links.
When it comes to making decisions about where to invest, this strong vs weak link thinking can prove very powerful. There are some great examples from education, transport and sport in Malcolm Gladwell’s engaging podcast, Revisionist History.
But for another example, take the field of medicine. Where is investment best targeted? This is a highly complex question, but there are a number of factors that influence where money gets spent: for pharmaceutical companies it is largely a commercial decision about what drugs will produce the best financial returns, while for publicly and charitably funded research it can go disproportionately towards diseases that receive the most publicity and are perceived by donors to cause the most suffering. The result is that the bulk of funding flows towards research by established institutions, researching the best ‘known’ diseases. Focusing on this disparity between investment and the true global disease burden, efforts such as the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) and the WHO’s Neglected Tropical Disease (NDT) Roadmap have been targeting the ‘weak links’ of global disease, tackling the diseases that are still affecting huge numbers of people but receiving little funding.
Is it all about the winning, or the glamour too?
Back to football. The weak link approach has gained a significant amount of traction and attention. The Swiss economists Egon Franck and Stephan Nuesch found that winning games in the German Bundesliga is related to obvious factors such as overall talent in the team, home advantage and some degree of luck, but also that the performance of a given team is inversely related to the spread of talent. The bigger the difference between the strongest and weakest player, the less likely the team is to do well.
If winning is the only aim, there is now a strong argument that the oligarchs investing in clubs should try to improve the weakest areas of their teams first, rather than spend the tens of millions on the striker of the moment. However, maybe winning isn't the only thing after all; maybe the glamour that comes with socialising with the top stars, the shirt sales and the elusive moment of a wonder-goal are just as valuable to them as actually winning? Probably so.
Which technologies are the superstar investments?
Now comes the question of how this relates to business, and specifically technology. Whilst there are big companies spending millions on keeping up with high-risk technology transformation such as AI, blockchain and transitioning data & modelling to the cloud, are these superstar investments more about prestige than the changes that would really make a difference? Maybe a tenth of the amount spent in the less glamorous parts of the business such as settlements, operations, and finance would actually return far greater value to the business overall. Because, after all, what is the point of being able to source the cutting-edge deals if the rest of the company is straining to support them?
If you accept the premise that it is important to invest in the underperforming parts of the business, how do you identify which areas actually are the weakest?
Schematiq Discovery - finding your weak links.
At HTI Labs, we created Schematiq knowing that parts of a business that lack investment in technology usually have spreadsheets multiplying rapidly. They create time-consuming manual processes and big operational risk. Our Excel Discovery service finds these areas of weak links by using a combination of proprietary technology, Lean workshops and consulting experience. Once found, we recommend and implement specific solutions to remediate them quickly and effectively – allowing you to work more productively on the strong links and differentiators in your business.
Why not get in touch with us to have a chat about how we could make your company work more efficiently as a team, focus on your weaknesses and make practical suggestions that will make a big difference to your productivity without the risk and cost of those superstar investments.