Skill in building teams is a critical competency in today’s world of team-based work. It is not an easy thing to do. Too often we bring together a group of people that we think will be able to work together but they fail to deliver.

Sometimes this is a simple issue of a poor skills match. People are selected for teams based on simple availability and not their actual skill sets. Or there has been some effort to get the right skills on the project but people’s claims or the data in internal databases don’t hold up under actual working conditions.

But there is another possibility to consider. Sometimes each individual has the necessary skills but there is no way to fit together the pattern of skills into a functioning whole. Yes, people who learn quickly and have superior communication skills can usually overcome this given time, but time is often something in short supply in project work.

The key themes

What are the skill patterns you should be trying to build when putting people together to work on teams? There are two to look for: complementary skills and connecting skills.

Complementary skills

We have talked about complementary skills before in The most important skills for building client relationships from the perspective of building client relationships. Basically, smart consultants build complementary skills with their customers.

What are complementary skills? Basically they are a set of independent skills that create more value when used together. For example user experience design (UX) and user interface design (UI) are complementary skills. They are independent, it is possible (quite common in fact) to excel at one and be poor at the other. But you need both skills to build anything much more complex than a simple web page. In sales, prospecting and closing are different skills (though some people are good at both).



Associated skills

Complementary skills are different from associated skills. Associated skills are skills that you expect to be found together, skill clusters so to speak. And if one in a set of closely associated skills is missing, one loses confidence in the claims about the other skills. What would you make of a sales person who claims to have great negotiation skills but poor closing skills! Negotiation and closing are associated skills. If a front-end engineer claimed JS and HTML but not CSS, or had a very low rating in CSS, one would down rate him as a front end developer and question his real expertise in JS and HTML. Associated skills are critical data structures in advanced skill management systems.

Connector skills

An even more important skill class is connector skills. People use connector skills to relate two (sometimes three) skill clusters.


Connector skills can live within a person, integrating different areas of expertise, or they can help two people work together. People with strong connector skills can make big contributions to cross pollinating two fields. You often see this as new fields emerge – data visualization or social learning. Connector skills are also critical to team communication. They connect skill clusters between people. Our research shows that teams with few connector skills tend to under perform, even when they otherwise have the same skill profile. Connector skills help people build shared mental models and shared way of talking with each other.

So when you are building teams, make sure that

  1. You have the complementary skills needed to get full value from people’s skill sets
  2. There are connector skills that provide the foundation for communication and collaboration

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Top image Megane Bridge Nagasaki, Japan. From Wikipedia.