A few months ago FC Barcelona lost the Champions League quarter-finals to Bayern Munich. Losing the game aside it was utter humiliation as it saw Bayern trash 8 goals in 90 minutes. Conceding 8 goals is embarrassing for any team but for a club of Barcelona’s stature, it was nothing but disastrous. Lionel Messi, their marquee player and arguably the greatest player of all time, was helpless and couldn’t do anything to help Barcelona survive, let alone win the game.
But it wasn’t like Messi was having a bad season by any means. He still had over 40 goal contributions that season. Sure he was playing in possibly the worst Barcelona team of the century but isn’t he the ‘Messiah’? Why then, did Barcelona lose the game and in the end finished the season trophyless for the first time in 12 years?
Malcolm Gladwell in an episode of his podcast “Revisionist History” and Chris Anderson in his book called “The Numbers Game” talk about the “Strong Link – Weak Link Theory” and the question that stayed on my mind at the end was this: Is the strength of a team determined by its strongest player or its weakest player?
Well the answer is “it depends”
Football is a weak link sport. You are only as good as your weakest player. No player can go from one end of the pitch to the other on his own; he needs players around him to actually progress a football. Every goal is a series of 5-8 good passes on average. Even if one pass goes wrong the process has to be repeated all over again. A football team cannot win with Lionel Messi and 10 other average players. Messi here can’t do anything and his influence is brought down to the level of the others. Simply because they can’t live up to his capabilities. Football is a game where a single mistake can lead to a goal which can lead to your side losing the game. Leicester City who won the premier league not so long ago – without any real stars – is probably a good case in point. So in football, it makes sense to strengthen your weak player instead of focusing on the strongest.
Basketball, however, is a strong link sport. Here the better your best player, the better your team plays. A LeBron James can take the ball from one end to the other on his own with ease. A basketball team doesn’t need 5 prolific players in the team it needs one, or probably 2 world-class players to win the championship. Even the best basketball teams of all time, Bulls of the 90s and Warriors of this generation have only 2 players who are actually the “world-class” type. The remaining 3 players are better than average at best who wouldn’t even make the first team in any other club. Very easily replaceable.
This theory can be used for building IPL teams during their preparation of the next player auction too. How can they decide whether they should break the bank to get that marquee player to play for them? Buying batsmen is a strong link sport. One hard-hitting Chris Gayle can destroy the opponent, bat through a majority of the 20 overs, and directly win your games. So it makes sense to bid for that superstar big-hitting batsman. But buying bowlers in a weak link business. No matter how excellent your best bowler is, he can only bowl a maximum of four overs. And often games are lost because of the number of runs given away by the fifth bowler. So making sure your fifth bowler is not a terribly weak link can be the key to success.
The Strong Link Weak Link Theory doesn’t stop at sports.
For example, if you are starting a hedge fund or investment group, you build it on the strong link paradigm. If you have a Warren Buffett it doesn’t really matter who your 15th analyst is. Warren Buffet is the guy getting you more than 80% of your profits. He’s their Lebron. Why does Google pay so much money to its best programmer? Because one good programmer is better than 50 mediocre ones and he’s the one making the difference. In Sales, however, your total sales will depend on how well your entire team performs. One amazing sales guy can only do so much.
Say you are given a 100million and told to improve the Indian education landscape in the next 5 years. By the Weak Link Model, you don’t start by improving the IITs and the NITs, and other top-level colleges but instead, focus on improving the relatively weaker 2nd and 3rd tier colleges and trying to bring them to the level of the ‘dream’ colleges. Upgrading IIT Bombay’s swimming pool from standard size to Olympic size doesn’t make sense when an engineering college in a Tier 2 city doesn’t have a proper laboratory.
Strong Link strategies are seen everywhere. We often hear the phrase ‘The Rich are getting Richer’. Well, in fact, ‘the Best are getting even Better’ and it is us who have accepted these strategies.
This paradigm can also be somewhat implied in our personal lives too. Is a new iPhone going to make you happier? Think about it. You already have an iPhone 10 do you really need an iPhone 11 which is the exact same as one, or if you are lucky, two new features? Probably not. With that $900 you can buy a new laptop so that you can get work done quicker, or probably that gym membership which will help you get fitter. Maybe even spend it on a small vacation away from everyday life. Instead of improving what is already perfectly working focus on adding something that can add another dimension to this ‘perfectly working’ section.
As Peter Thiel would say “Go from Zero to One”.