Biology vs chemistry


Unless you’ve been living alone in a cave (which is actually possible, given ubiquitous internet access and the fact that some of you like grunge metal), it’s safe to say you’ve been a member of a team at some point.

If so, have you ever been part of a team of bright, talented folks who are ineffective working together? It's a condition I affectionately refer to as the “Smart-Members-Dumb-Team” disorder. If your team has well-qualified participants, but little gets done and objectives aren't met, you're probably afflicted with SMDT. In small organizations this disorder can be quickly recognized and treated, but in larger companies SMDT can go undetected for months.

In some cases (especially in high-tech environments) the afflicted teams are populated by exceptionally brilliant individuals—who often know it and have little patience for others deemed less brilliant.

But whether we're talking raw intelligence or other inherited abilities, a team can have good biology (genetic gifts) but lousy chemistry (an ability to work together to exploit collective abilities). The whole turns out to be less than the sum of its parts.

This certainly applies to many bands with uber-talented musicians who just can't play together. They compete for attention, overplay their instruments, and ignore each other's musical contributions. Such groups seldom last long enough for us to hear about them. But history is replete with examples of the opposite: bands who weren’t blessed with a surplus of obvious God-given musical talent at the beginning, but who stayed together and developed the chemistry (and eventually the talent) to be successful. Think Beatles or U2. (Trust me: The Beatles, in their very early days as The Quarrymen, were an underwhelming performance act.)

The word “chemistry” can make it all sound mysterious—and beyond human intervention. But there’s an art to building team chemistry, which can be learned and practiced. It includes being aligned on a shared vision, questioning assumptions and exploring differences, and minimizing the defensiveness that protects team members from learning and acting. The best source on the subject is still Peter Senge’s classic: The 5th Discipline: The Art and Science of the Learning Organization. (In the chapter on “Team Learning” Senge credits the work of physician David Bohm in encouraging team “dialogue” and business theorist Chris Argyris in identifying “defensive routines.”)

There’s another way a team can have biology but not chemistry working for it. Many years ago I consulted to a family-run company, in which the management team shared a genetic biology, given the fact that the business was run by two elder brothers—whose parents started the company—and their sons. But the chemistry between the two families was not quite clicking on all cylinders, simply because each family assumed the other was headed in a different direction and a breakup of the enterprise was preordained. They had heard all the stories about family-run businesses falling apart in the third generation and believed it was inevitable!

But once the two families sat down and discussed the future they saw for the business, they discovered that they shared the same vision for the company and actually wanted to stay together. With some work—and a lot of open communication—the chemistry of the management team improved and employee performance soon reflected that. Once the organization got past some difficult contractions 20 years ago, the business thrived and expanded. The company today is still rocking and rolling.

To paraphrase Sam Cooke in “Wonderful World,” I don’t know much biology or chemistry from my school days. But from what I’ve learned in business, chemistry rules.

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  1. Sorta like how the band Asia managed to be less than the sum of its parts. A few fun tunes, but how could Greg Lake and Steve Howe produce something less than iconic?

    There's someone in my industry who does incredibly similar work. We laugh at each other's jokes, share loads of connections in the same network, read the same books -- too many similarities to list.

    And despite more than one attempt, we've never worked together. It's always little things, but something always comes up that makes one or both of us lose the spark.

    And the best partner I ever had shared virtually no skills, came from a totally new network, and other than gender just wasn't much like me. But the chemistry was there.

  2. Yup. Sometimes the chemistry is there from the get-go.

    Hey, thanks for the reminder that I can talk about teams of two (tho some may quibble that two isn't a team). LOTS of lessons to be learned from musical duos.

    1. "Quibble" being the right word. A team is defined as "a group who blah blah blah" so there's no number. "Group" is defined as "a number of blah blah blah" but it doesn't say what the minimum number is.

      Two is a group. A duo is just one kinda group.

      So there.

      Seriously, where would music be without duos?

  3. The Everly Brothers were the first duo I noticed. I was in their fan club at the age of 10. I loved getting the autographed pix.

  4. Biology, chemistry and... ego.

    It strikes me there's nothing wrecks a team more comprehensively than someone who puts his own ego way ahead of his/her colleagues. If that ego can't be reined in or otherwise managed, it'll infect the team and undermine the project.

    Any band that allows the drummer more than 60 seconds for a solo is probably suffering from ego problems. It's a scientifically provable fact that 99.999% of concert goers do not like drum solos. We know they're only there because the drummer feels his contribution is being overlooked and has threatened to quit, the singer needs a booze fix and the guitarist wants to do a line of coke. So we get 15 minutes of pure, unadulterated self-indulgence.

    Which also prompts the thought that chemistry (or at any rate, chemicals) is so often what also wrecks bands...

  5. I started my career as a drummer, but I've never liked drum solos. (Cream's Ginger Baker did a solo every gig, however, that was worth the price of admission.)

    Chemicals only destroy a band that doesn't have chemistry (the other kind) to begin with. (Cream provides us an example of that, as well.)

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