Play To Their Strengths

Last week we looked at the third step to building transformational teams. That being ignite the hungry new hires. We also provided the key benefits of the purpose driven workplace which is the key to amplifying a new hire’s talent. Today we are going to look at the fourth step: Play to their strengths.


This is what the most engaging part of the learning curve feel like: that “sweet spot” when you’re no longer a confused beginner but aren’t a slightly bored master. A good boss understands how to lengthen this most productive stretch of the curve, where a person has achieved competency but hasn’t yet been overtaken by stagnation. There is energy and power here. Ideally, 70% of your team will be in this sweet spot.

At the low end of the learning curve, your new hires experienced the natural constraints of inexperience. You imposed constraints in the form of milestone checkpoints to provide quick feedback and gauge momentum and helped them recalibrate when necessary. Now it is time to reevaluate: Does an artificial constraint need to be imposed – a new stretch goal, for example? On the steep part of the curve is where people perform proactively. Where they think creatively. Where they innovate. It is the sweet spot indeed, and many of your people are there right now – your job is to maximize what they are already primed to do.

If there was one subject I failed miserably at school it was physics. If it wasn’t for my step father Juris, I may have received the lowest mark on record. But one law I do remember is that of friction. “We could all slide along faster if friction didn’t slow us down. But if there is no friction, you can’t start moving.” This is Newton’s third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Apply this to the sweet-spot dwellers on your team. They may seem to be doing just fine, sliding along with zero friction. Passing their workdays in a pleasant glide. But we don’t slide uphill to great achievement or coast our way to the top of an S curve. Instead we often have to do something counter intuitive – by imposing constraints on their day-to-day job.

Friction was intrinsic at the beginning, at the low end of the curve. As low-enders gain traction, natural friction dissipates, leading to loss of momentum. You can reintroduce friction by giving your employees a business challenge that’s not quite within their grasp, a force to push against that requires greater investment of effort to maintain or even to accelerate it.

This can come in the form of stretch assignments. When challenged, 67% of people will demonstrate above-average creativity. Only 33% of people show above-average creativity in non-challenging roles. Make sure your employees understand what you envision for the company, team – and especially for them. Then give them a big problem to solve.

For almost everyone, time is the biggest constraint. A task that is less demanding becomes a major challenge if you impose a tight deadline. In many situations, time constraints are already built in. If they are not, here are some questions to ask your employee, and ask yourself:

“If only I had enough money.” We’ve all heard that. We’ve all said that. As with time, we think constrictively when funds are limited. I frequently hear aspiring entrepreneurs say, “If I could raise money, then I could start a business.” A postmortem performed on two hundred failed startups found that the number-one reason the funded startups failed was that they ran out of cash; for unfunded startups this was only reason number ten. Adequate funding is not a panacea, and empty pockets don’t necessarily doom us. If you have an idea, a simple question to ask is, “What is the simplest, cheapest way to test the idea?” Here are some other specific questions you can use to challenge the team:

The world needs experts but it also needs novices. Sometimes the best ideas emerge from not knowing the conventions or “how it is done.” To see how a lack of expertise can become a valuable constraint, ask yourself and your employee:

The challenge to expertise constraints is getting buy-in. When an expert has an idea, people are much more likely to green-light it. So one of the most important things you can do is require expertise-constrained team members to learn to solicit and get approval for their initiatives. Even when you know it makes sense to say “yes” require your workers to make their case in a way that would earn buy-in. To help them with this, you might ask:

Think of spring bulbs like daffodils. They need to go through a period of cold weather to flourish. The bulb doesn’t know or care whether the cold is real or artificial; what matters is that without the temperature constraint, it would never burst into flower. Shortfalls of time, money, expertise, and buy-in lend themselves to a strategy that favours transformation. Your job is to provide the soil, to impose the constraints, that allow your employees to bloom.

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