Three Longs & Three Shorts

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The digital age characterised by our ability to capture and process vast amounts of data for decision making is helping humanity progress in a multitude of fields. One such area is ‘Complexity science’ – the study of complex systems with several dynamic individual parts and the interaction between them to produce a collective non-linear outcome, which is bigger than the sum of its parts. At Marcellus, we try and incorporate processes in our investment approach that help us collectively deliver a outcome to our clients superior to what any of our individual skills can explain. But there is no better discipline to study and understand this aspect than sports, especially team sports. This essay in the Aeon by Professor Flack at Santa Fe Institute and Professor Masset at The Wharton school, using several examples of sports teams, throws some light on the improvements in our understanding of team dynamics thanks to quantification of data of various factors at play and its impact on outcomes. The essay begins by the circumspection many of us have about the collective being bigger than the sum of the parts, simply because there has been very little data to substantiate.
“…simply recruiting the best players is fairly straightforward, and some analyses suggest this approach might even be the most reliable: as the sociologist Duncan Watts and colleagues argued, overall talent level is often the single best predictor of team performance. Yet we shouldn’t be lured into thinking overall talent is the best predictor because it is the most important factor. It might be the best predictor because we’re not yet good at capturing the nuance of collective dynamics”
They then talk about concepts of ‘synergy’ and ‘complementarity’:
“…the notions of ‘synergy’ and ‘complementarity’, which pertain to situations where the collective output is greater than expected from adding up individual ability. ‘Whenever they speak Michael Jordan, they should speak Scottie Pippen.’ This statement, by Jordan in the documentary The Last Dance (2020), was so salient to the audience that it evolved into a refrain. Similarly, the idea of Battier as a Lego block that brings the team together resonates in the Lewis article as a powerful metaphor for what’s missing in our understanding of team dynamics.
…The roles of synergistic interactions and complementarity are relevant beyond team performance to a wide range of issues – from our understanding of how drugs combine to treat disease, to how proteins function, to how monkeys manage conflict in their societies. Consequently, various statistical and information theoretic measures have been devised by complexity scientists to assess the different ways individual contributions can combine to produce collective outcomes. These contributions can be decomposed into ‘synergy’, ‘antagonism’ (synergy’s inverse, an individual diminishing collective performance beyond what would be expected based on his or her (in)ability alone), ‘redundant’ (a ‘backup’) and ‘unique’ (as is possibly the case for Battier). Each of these contribution types has been formalised mathematically and, in principle, can be quantified in team performance data. The calculations are challenging (and not wholly agreed upon yet) and can give counterintuitive results, conferring a real edge to anyone doing the work to compute them.”
Another concept they find critical yet hard to spot in teamwork is synchrony:
“Another key idea from complexity science that can provide the foundations for great teams is synchrony – the coordination in time of parts of a system, such as cells, individuals or nanobots.
…How individuals synchronise in time can have implications for how they coordinate in space or ‘swarm’. Swarming broadly refers to the coordinated movement of individuals – think of wildebeest stampeding across the Serengeti or fish forming a tightly aligned school to escape a predator. Likewise, players moving across the soccer field or basketball court can be conceived of as a swarm. How do teammates coordinate their movement to increase the likelihood that a behind-the-back pass is caught by a teammate rather than stolen? More generally, does coordination in space interact with synchronicity to produce a more effective team on which the players anticipate one another’s actions because they’re ‘in sync’? In The Last Dance documentary, Kerr remarks that Pippen provided essential rhythm on the court, suggesting that some players function as swarm harmonisers, perhaps making dynamic spatial strategies such as the triangle offence more effective.”
The whole article is well worth a read given the several examples from various fields they cite, however, the most fascinating ones come from basketball.