Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Spice Girls. Cowboy Bebop. Epic squads make for great storytelling. But the reason they’re compelling is essentially the same: optimum distinctiveness.
When we think about identity, everyone is trying to find a balance between uniqueness and belonging. Good squad-based narratives play on this by balancing a central uniting theme that differentiates them from the rest of the world (teenagers that are mutants and ninjas and turtles, defined against anyone that isn’t all four of those) with within-group archetypes that are clearly differentiated. These archetypes are what psychologists call “optimally distinct,” like Venn diagrams that kiss but don’t actually overlap: Michelangelo the prankster, Donatello the egghead, Leonardo the leader, Raphael the rebel.
This optimal distinctiveness is a key part of why we tend to identify with only a single character. There is always a healthy debate between fans about the best character (which is part of the fun) but not within any individual fan; internally, I’m not conflicted about which character I identify with because they are designed for me to have a favorite.’
Moreover, this elimination of duplication also makes the division of labor easier. It is clear that in a situation involving science, you go to Donatello; there is no conflict about that as the right course of action. If Shredder has invented some super shrink ray, Raphael is not your turtle and he’s not offended, because he knows that he has his own area of expertise. You might like him better than Donatello, but it is still clear what his function is within the greater whole, because his optimal distinctiveness ensures it.
This is part of what makes the Turtles feel cohesive. They are literally the perfect family, fighting only because their values are actually distinct. It is like the ideal Socratic debate, with everyone arguing from a clearly differentiated vantage point.
It also makes them prepared for a wider range of situations. If you think of all the Turtles as being relatively equally skilled, optimal distinction means that those skills will be distributed over the largest possible surface area, making it maximally likely that a problem will fall within the covered domain; if you draw the four kissing Venn diagrams, you can immediately see how overlap would lower the total area. The Turtles can deal with both an alien brain in a robotic body and a mutated four-armed fly because they’ve got very different angles to work on those problems from.
Unfortunately, in reality, teams that form organically rarely assort into optimally distinct configurations; that it happens in TMNT is fiction right up there with the existence of radioactive reptiles. We’ve all experienced this problem for ourselves in the complicated negotiations of childhood imaginative play: you get to be Leonardo on Monday, he gets to be Leonardo on Tuesday, she gets to be Leonardo on Wednesday, all because being the leader is the popular archetype.
But in companies, unlike childhood friend groups, we have the relative luxury of being able to design our organizations. We don’t have to rely on organic creation and can instead focus on creating optimal distinctiveness to take advantage of the benefits it provides.
The easy version of this is role. On my behavioral science teams, I always have trios of Project Manager, Quantitative Researcher, Qualitative Researcher, with a flexible shared pool of Interventionists, to ensure that there is significant difference in terms of both responsibility and viewpoint. Because roles are hopefully well-defined, they make for handy shortcuts to the kind of dispersion we want.
But role is only one way of looking at optimal distinctiveness. Each of the Turtles has a signature weapon, a different fighting style, even a different headband color. It isn’t just role, it is also skills and personality and culture and all the many things that make up a person. And that diversity is key, both for resilience across a variety of situations and for increasing the chances that team members simultaneously feel both special and unique.
People often underestimate how important that feeling of uniqueness actually is. Google is famous for their research showing psychological safety as the best predictor of high performing teams and managers usually take this to mean an absence of negative consequences for risk taking. But if you look at the actual survey measure of psychological safety Google uses, you find this gem:
Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
If that doesn’t describe the Turtles, I don’t know what does.
There is probably a need for an entire followup article on how you actually go create an optimally distinct team and maybe I’ll eventually get around to writing it, but for the moment, I’ll say that I think it starts with the job description creation and hiring process. We already talked about how well-defined roles create optimal distinction, so to the extent that the JD is truly the definition of a role, hiring managers should be putting in far more effort than they generally do.
But I also think we underutilize the interview process as a point of creating differentiation. You aren’t just interviewing a set of skills that match a role; you’re interviewing an entire person, with all the associated complexities. It makes sense not to simply replicate what you already have, since recruiting your fourth Michelangelo means missing out on your first Raphael.
Side Note: I was a Donatello kid. Which is not shocking, given my tech/science geek bent, but in many ways it was actually a rejection of the others. I’m not fun (just ask my friends) so Michelangelo was out. I’m not a leader, so goodbye to Leonardo, plus he spent entirely too much time having some sort of internal conflict that I still don’t really understand. And I certainly didn’t want to think of myself as the hothead rebel, although I may have turned out more like Raphael than I intended. But when I see Donatello now, the truth is he was sort of a flat character. No internal conflict, no genuine emotion, just a shallow fixation with problem solving; he’s the Phillips head screwdriver of the series. Maybe that still is me, mostly fixated on the solutions, but without any great emotional depth. Time will tell; maybe I’m just Casey Jones, waiting to swoop in with a hockey stick.