Personal Finance

Right way to address your weak, strong links


Juakali artisans at Kamukunji workshops in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG


  • Most small enterprises in Kenya -- that make up roughly 98 per cent of all businesses -- are strong link organisations, largely dependent on the hard work and bright ideas of the entrepreneur.
  • Basically, sink or swim.

Two people are sitting by the side of a busy road selling tomatoes. Do you join them as the third tomato seller ?

If you want to improve the performance of your business, or NGO, do you go after parachuting in Ivy League-like star performers, and coach your stalwart managers to excel, focusing on the few strong links? Or, do you pay attention to improving the calibre of staff throughout the whole organisation? Making sure all the weak links are supported and developed ?

This question goes to heart of the matter about business success ? Why do some organisations thrive, leaping from strength to strength, and others -- still believing their own hyped up PR -- slither into mediocrity. ?

Why is it that some people and companies are able to capitalise on the limited resources they have, and do well ? While others blessed with abundant resources squander the chances and are erased from organisational memory ?

Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell provides some clues to success in presenting the idea of: weak link and strong link organisations. First, one has to understand the dynamics of the business one is in, the game one is playing. Gladwell uses the analogy of sport.

In football, world-class clubs, tend to have one or more star players, supported by more than capable mid- fielders and defenders. In contrast, in basketball, it is possible to have star players like LeBron James that carry a team like the LA Lakers consistently to victory, yet the rest are not particularly strong.

In basketball, a star player can carry the ball from one end of the court to the other, racking up points on the scoreboard, which reads 110 to 89. In football, this isn’t possible, you rely more on 5 or 6 other players to carry the ball forward, and pass when the time is right, not losing possession. Gladwell makes the argument that football is a weak link sport, and basketball a strong link sport.

If you want to create a great basketball team, the thinking is that best focus is on recruiting one or more star players. In contrast, in football, given games are often won or lost, based on a small margin. Say, for instance, a weak leak defender makes an error, allowing the opponent to score and win the game 1 to 0. So, in football, to strengthen a team, it’s best to focus on the weak links. Basketball teams thrive based on who their strongest links are, and football teams do well by addressing all the weak links.

Do you work in a weak link or strong link organisation ? Here we are really talking about systems, and while the weak link [football] – strong link [basketball] analogy is not perfect, it does raise some critical questions.

A hedge fund, or investment bank can be consistently extremely profitable based on a strong link financial wizard, prime example is Warren Buffet. In contrast a bank, or an airline, would be a weak link organisation, only as strong as it’s weakest link. Imagine the impact of an airline baggage handler, leaving an unnoticed cargo bay door not fully closed?

Chances are the optimistic entrepreneurial tomato seller would join the two competitors, aiming to generate cash to put food on the family dinner table. With time, they might go up the value chain and think about making tomato paste, or even an upmarket spaghetti sauce. Most small enterprises in Kenya -- that make up roughly 98 per cent of all businesses -- are strong link organisations, largely dependent on the hard work and bright ideas of the entrepreneur. Basically, sink or swim.

Another way to look at this issue of how to take advantage, capitalise on likely strained resources is ask: What is the main constraint ? What is the one thing that’s holding the business back, one step away from success ?

Strong link or weak link, which is it ? Yes, by definition all ‘links’ are important, but some are more vital than others. Does this sound a touch doubtful ? We are all that tomato seller, hoping for the best. “A child has no trouble believing in the unbelievable, nor does the genius or madman. It’s only you and I with our big brains and our tiny hearts, who doubt and overthink and hesitate” said Steven Pressfield.