The New York Yankees and Startup Communities

Startup communities are examples of complex adaptive systems. This means many things for understanding and influencing their behavior, but today I want to focus on two concepts: non-linearity (the sum is greater than the parts) and synergistic integration (interaction between the parts matters a lot). To make my point, I’ll draw on an example from my favorite sport.

The New York Yankees won four World Series titles in five seasons between 1996 and 2000, following a drought of 18 years. With this newfound success came a big television deal, a higher revenue stream, and much more money on the field. After winning four championships with the team they had, the Yankees tried to buy additional titles through a collection of All-Stars.

The result? No World Series titles and a steadily declining regular season winning percentage during the next eight seasons. What happened?


The demise of the 2000’s Yankees can be attributed to a failure by management to recognize the complexity of a team sport like baseball. The Yankees applied linear systems thinking to what is an inherently complex system. They believed that simply adding more of the “the best” inputs (players) would predictably and reliably produce the desired result (wins, championships).

Linear thinking works in individual sports like tennis or golf, but not in team sports like baseball, where the integration of the pieces (the players) can be more deterministic of the outcome than the sum of the parts (the combined talents of the individual players).

By all accounts, the Yankees clubhouse was toxic and in a sport like baseball where the team is together everyday for most of the year, poor interactions among the players can be fatal. And for the Yankees, it was. Having the nine best players on the field won’t guarantee a winning team. The Yankees learned that the hard way.

Startup communities are also a team sport. They might even be the ultimate team sport. Having the “best players” alone won’t work, just as it didn’t for the New York Yankees. The interactions between the parts (people) make all the difference in the world. Healthy attitudes, behaviors, and ideas are the key to vibrant startup communities.

I recently wrote about The More of Everything Problem, whereby too many startup communities believe that large-scale, top-down interventions are the key to success. Many mistakenly take a linear systems approach that prioritizes resource accumulation over resource integration. But for complex systems like startup communities, integration really matters—human relationships are the whole ballgame.

I see a simple yet powerful lesson for startup communities participants here: focus less on the pieces and more the interactions. Evolve from asking “how many” to “how well.”

The New York Yankees forgot this lesson and paid dearly over the course of a decade. They are back to their winning ways again, and their success is being built from the bottom-up—by a group of young, relatively unknown players, matched with a few elder veterans, who are hungry for success, and are there to play like a team.