Why Teams?

Yaneer Bar-Yam, New England Complex Systems Institute and MIT, 
Cambridge, MA 02139, USA

Why do we need teams? Teams can make complex decisions correctly and perform highly complex tasks.

One person can only know so much: There is a limited number of different things that a person can respond to successfully. Highly complex tasks exceed an individual’s capacity to perform or understand. Specialization enables a group of individuals to perform more complex tasks by routing one set of tasks to one individual and a different set to a different individual. This is what happens, for example, in healthcare where there are many specialists and there is someone who directs individuals to the right specialist (see Fig. 1 A) [1].

Fig. 1: Two ways of dealing with complexity A. Routing different challenges to different specialists. B. A multidisciplinary team works together. The links illustrated between the members of the team do not indicate a particular form of communication or interaction, just that each one’s input is used in determining an action taken.

The number of distinct tasks that can be performed by the system of specialists grows linearly with the number of individuals (it is the sum of the number of types of tasks each individual can perform). For example, if there are 5 individuals and each can do 10,000 different tasks, then together they can do 50,000 different things (see Fig. 2 A). This is helpful, but teams do even more.

Fig. 2: Distinct tones symbolize the distinct possible tasks for an individual or team to perform. A. Separating distinct types of tasks, specialists can address more conditions than one individual; the numbers add. What is shown is that two specialists can do twice as many tasks as one. For example, if each one can do 10,000 tasks, together they can do 20,000. B. Teams can address an even more diverse set of conditions because the numbers multiply. For a two member team it would be 10,000 x 10,000 = 100,000,000.

A collaborative team enables each individual to contribute a different dimension to the task performed by the group, so that the number of types of tasks can be as high as the product of the number of tasks each individual can perform. In this case 5 individuals can do 10,000 x 10,000 x 10,000 x 10,000 x 10,000 = 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 = 10^20 different things, many more possible tasks than the specialist system (see Fig. 2 B).

The advantage of working together is to get a complex task right, to be successful at making the right decision. The higher the complexity, the more specialists cannot be successful, but teams can be.

This is important in healthcare in addressing complex diseases and conditions that can interact with each other. It is also generally important in dealing with complex tasks of all kinds. The cost of having such a team in place might seem high, but for complex cases such a team will prove to be more effective and less costly than the alternative. The challenge is making sure the teams work together smoothly and efficiently. This will yield better results than specialists working separately.

Well-integrated teams have the combined specialized knowledge of each member and more: they have the ability to relate these different domains of knowledge and combine them. Moreover, they can act rapidly with this combined knowledge.

Want to learn more about complexity and the limits of a system’s ability to respond to its environment? Read about Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety [2].


  1. Y. Bar-Yam, S. Bar-Yam, K.Z. Bertrand, N. Cohen, A.S. Gard-Murray, H.P. Harte, and L. Leykum, A Complex Systems Science Approach to Healthcare Costs and Quality, Handbook of Systems and Complexity in Health (Springer 2013): 855–877.
  2. WR Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics (Chapman & Hall, 1956)
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