Teamwork and the Omelette Principle

You do not have to be the smartest person in the room, but you do have to notice when you need help and ask the right person the right question

Teamwork and the Omelette Principle

All organizations run the same way:

  1. Decide what to do. This is strategy.
  2. Do it. This is execution.
  3. Learn as you go.
  4. Repeat.

It is simple. But the details get complicated, fast. Your strategy must include or imply a progressively-elaborable set of goals, tactics, and measures that you can execute well. Proper execution requires resources and expertise. Risk is inherent. Choose and execute your strategy wisely, and you are more likely to build a successful organization that provides your customers with a superior product or service.

There is no golden ticket. While everyone can tell you some new way for your organization to fail, no one can tell you how to succeed with 100% probability. That said, the right idea at the right time can inch you closer to success.

This article focuses on one unfading key to organizational success: teamwork.

We do more together. Much more.

Virtues like wisdom, expertise, and agility all matter. In an organizational setting, they all depend upon teamwork. Let us look to two historical examples.

In 1945, the Manhattan Project brought humanity into the Nuclear Age. The project catalyzed large advances in theoretical and experimental physics, but the most effective Manhattan Project physicist was not a Nobel prizewinner like Niels Bohr or Enrico Fermi, nor was he a future Nobel prizewinner like Richard Feynman or Glenn Seaborg. He was Robert Oppenheimer, a PhD physicist and, more importantly, chief node within a high-functioning team of world class scientists. No single scientist had more expertise or greater output than Oppenheimer's combined team.

Or, consider today. Its workforce of exceeds the population of Kansas City, MO, the metropolitan home of two professional sports teams, burnt ends barbeque, and lots of nice people. [1] [2] Even though is a technology company, its most effective technologist is not a technologist. He is a businessman who assembled a team: CEO Jeff Bezos. His team defined an effective strategy and executed it to produce vast technological output, including the world's most popular cloud computing platform.

As an individual contributor, a businessman may or may not be very good at technology. For example, a lot of high schoolers might be able to beat Jeff Bezos in a head-to-head individual cloud computing hackathon. But in the real world, Bezos could make a phone call to a world-class cloud computing expert and dominate the competition in 5 minutes or less.

Like Bezos, if you can connect with others effectively, you can accomplish the individually impossible. All you have to do is recognize your relative weaknesses and be able to call on the right willing friend or colleague when you see you are at a disadvantage. If you can do that, all your weaknesses will drop to the level of your network's combined strengths.

That is why most efficient person in your organization is likely to be whoever is best connected, assuming that person is sufficiently self-aware of the dividing line between their strengths and weaknesses.

The Omelette Principle

In one short, concrete anecdote, the Omelette Principle illustrates how working together can increase the quality of an individual's output.

Imagine you are hungry for an omelette, you are a mediocre cook, and the best omelette you can fry is just Okay. As you are about to light your stove, you realize your new friend Robin is an talented chef who can fry an omelette that is Excellent. You call Robin, and with Robin's help you fry the best omelette you ever tasted. You are totally satisfied, and you learned a little bit more about making omelettes.

The Omelette Principle shows that if you want to achieve excellence, you do not have to be the smartest person in the room. You just have to notice when you need help and ask the right person the right question at the right time.

You do not have to be the smartest person in the room. You just have to notice when you need help and ask the right person the right question at the right time.

The Omelette Principle applies widely. It certainly applies in the workplace, except instead of omelettes we might be talking about a different topic like project management, software engineering, legal considerations, human resources, or contracts. Or, if we were in the restaurant business, we might still be discussing actual omelettes.

Not only are highly connected persons more likely to produce higher quality products and services, but so are highly connected organizations. Imagine an organization full of highly connected persons. When everyone in an organization can find and act upon the high quality expertise quickly, so can the organization itself. That creates a strong competitive advantage.

Incidentally, The Omelette Principle may help explain why many MBA students choose to hang out together very late at night. What makes more sense: an extra late-night study session, or enjoying yourself with new friends who may come to feel glad to share their unique expertise with you for free, on-demand, and forever, assuming it is allowable within legal, regulatory, professional, moral, ethical, and practical constraints?

Enjoying yourself with friends becomes all the more enticing if your finance textbook will never be able to help you land you a job or introduce you to your spouse, but your friend just might. In some scenarios, "just-in-time manufacturing" may describe knowledge inventory just as well it does as warehouse inventory: learn only what you need to learn, at the time you need to learn it, and watch your costs drop.

Education is indispensable. There are uncountable reasons why it makes sense to learn from the experiences of the 100 billion humans who lived and breathed before us. The Omelette Principle does not work if no one knows how to do the job. Someone better have the goods, or the job will not get done. A student who does not learn abdicates their duty.

Nevertheless, the Omelette Principle makes connecting and maintaining relationships with other people an easy and effective way to stay competitive.

Header photo by Igor Miske / Unsplash