Sometimes, separate components can come together to form something far more valuable than the sum of its parts: a new chemical, a cake, a family, a business, a partnership. We call this “synergy.” It’s like the miracle of compound interest, if you think about it: one plus one equals way more than two. We’ve recognized the value of synergy throughout history, but it was only in the twentieth century that the great Buckminster Fuller created a term for it.
We often see synergy in teamwork situations, where individuals lend their strengths to a collaborative framework in such a way that the contributions slot together perfectly, growing into a greater whole that expands beyond their limits. Ideally, this is what we’re all reaching for as we build and shape our teams. When conditions are right, suddenly a new “organism” comes into being, a social or technological offspring independent of and greater than the contributors. This reaction can prove immensely profitable, whether culturally or economically, on a large scale or a small one.
Those of us who’ve paid attention to either history or modern society have seen how whole art-forms or industries can spring up seemingly out of nowhere, and supported, later, by large, thriving populaces of artists or technologists as they grow to maturity and bear their fruit. Consider the burgeoning of opera and musical theatre several centuries ago, for example, and today’s home computing revolution.
Let’s take a closer look at three synergistic teams on a small scale: pioneering pairs who, separately, did fine—but who built their passions to miraculous heights when they worked together.
Pair #1: Speaking of opera, let’s start with the famous Gilbert and Sullivan. Their comic operettas have become familiar parts of the grand tapestry of English-speaking culture, and some of their songs and lyrics have even entered common speech. You’ve probably heard of their Pirates of Penzance. Some consider Gilbert and Sullivan the fathers of modern musical theatre, that more accessible offshoot of grand opera.
W.S. Gilbert was a librettist, a specialist in writing the words for operas. He and composer Arthur Sullivan met in 1869 and proceeded to delight the Victorian world with their 14 topsy-turvy comedies, which theatre groups still perform today. Their innovations in content and form have shaped not just musical theater but film, literature, TV, and political discourse in the years since.
Both men built decent individual careers in their fields, careers in which they seemed happy enough. But fate intervened, a mutual friend introduced them, and once they started working together, something clicked—and their synergy delighted Victorian society. Gilbert’s sprightly lyrics, wrapped perfectly in Sullivan’s music, entertained and tweaked the noses of those in power without offending them. The two men eventually went their separate ways, never rising again to their former glory; but the fact remains that their synergistic glory did occur, and we still celebrate them for it.
Fast forward to the 1970s for Pair #2: Jobs and Wozniak. The two Steves were instrumental in creating the home computing revolution, building the first Apple computers in 1979. The very first Apple, mostly soldered together from off-the-shelf components in Wozniak’s garage, literally had a case made of plywood. Most people don’t realize that Apple introduced home computers before the rash of IBM clones many of us now use. In fact, the advent of IBM PCs forced them to invent something altogether new: the Macintosh.
Jobs and Wozniak seem an unusual pairing at first glance, because “the Woz” was an introverted loner, while Jobs was outgoing and energetic. But synergistic situations often form from the interactions, and even the clashes, between very different individuals brought together under the right circumstances. Indeed, the need to bridge this gap between personalities may be what makes collaborative synergy happen in the first place. Both men were very intelligent, and if they’d gone their separate ways earlier, would no doubt have done very well; but modern technology would have been the worse for it. In the end, their talents complemented each other.
Wozniak was the creator, the dreamer who holed up in his lab and built world-changing things. While also technically sophisticated, Jobs was the salesman: able to buy into Wozniak’s dream and sell it to the public at large. He also stimulated creativity in others. For proof, look no farther than how badly Apple fared after Jobs was forced out in the 1980s—and how well it did later, almost immediately after he took his job back.
Pair #3 is another high-tech partnership you may have heard of: Brin and Page. Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page didn’t really like each other when they first met in their Ph.D. program at Stanford, but eventually decided to work on a project together. Both were interested in creating a way to rank search engine results based on how many other sites linked into a particular page, and the quality of those incoming links. This page ranking system eventually led to the company they abandoned their degrees to create: a little something called Google. Google has done so well it’s literally become a household name. Its name has even entered the language as a verb, now accepted as such by all the major dictionaries. We’ve all “googled” something or someone, haven’t we?
Since their first search engine appeared, their company has burgeoned into an Internet giant, providing everything from news and social media to instant language-to-language translation, all with a wit that has endeared them to millions.
It’s hard to say precisely what each man brings to the partnership. Both are fiercely intelligent, and clearly their abilities and personal characteristics mesh very well. But Brin seems to be the daredevil of the group, as you can see just from browsing his personal pictures online. He takes chances: piloting, skydiving, occasionally hosting odd theme parties. He’s more outgoing, writing his Google+ blogs himself and personally answering emails. Larry Page seems much more private, and I suspect he provides stability and administrative capabilities to the partnership.
These inventive pairs offer just three examples of interpersonal synergy. There have been millions, no doubt; we’ve built our technological society on them. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to build synergy in your team, such energetic synergy that it yanks everyone forward in a quantum leap of productivity and profit. It may not come easy. It may not come at all. But if you can create the right conditions, open yourself up to the possibility, and lead your team down that yellow brick road to the future, you can learn what it’s like to contribute to a team and get far more back than you ever expected.