The Trifecta

today2022.11.21. 231 5



By David C Forman, Author of Fearless HR and Fearless Talent Choices



“Take away our 30 best people and Microsoft becomes an ordinary company.” – Bill Gates. 

Winning the race to bring in the best people is not enough. You also need to bring out the best in all people. Building a culture where there is a common goal is what pushes the teams forward as a unity. Work is now a team sport, where teams are agile, inclusive, cross-disciplinary, and self-governing.

A Trifecta is a special bet in a horse race.  A usual bet is to pick a horse and then wager if that horse will come in first, second or third (win, place, or show).   A Trifecta is when you pick three horses in the field, not one, and then declare which horse will win, place and show.   The order of finish is essential; even if you pick the right three horses if they finish out of sequence, you lose.   If you get both the horses and the sequence correct, your bet pays off handsomely because trifecta winners are rare.    

While horse racing is popular today, it was once among the top three sports in the world.  Horse racing was called “The Sport of Kings,”  and it truly was.  A great race decades ago could literally capture the attention of the world.  In 1938, for example, a single horse—the incomparable Seabiscuit—received more news coverage that FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini.  Pundits at the time jokingly justified this coverage by suggesting that the little horse with the wispy tail was much faster and more fun to watch than the three men.  

The Fast Track:  The Search for High Performance Over the Years

The search for advantage, strength, performance, and success is not limited to the sport of kings.  This quest is a fundamental aspiration that has characterized many human endeavors, and building businesses is certainly one of them.   The keys to economic advantage, building a better business and outdistancing competitors has taken many forms over the past century+.

1.  The Production Line.  In the late Nineteenth to mid-Twentieth Century,  as countries expanded, and  power became more accessible, there was burgeoning demand for new goods and products that made life easier and better.  Automation, the production line, and factories fundamentally reshaped the world of work.   

The keys to success during this period of economic transition were economies of scale, effective asset utilization, efficiency, and strict adherence to a defined production process.  People, like machines, were cogs in this process.   If either broke down, they could be easily replaced.  So long as everything went smoothly, the system worked:  New and cheaper products were available, the economy flourished, the country grew, and profits soared.  Companies in this time were hierarchical and driven by  top-down leadership that wanted to control practices and minimize variance and disruption.  The primary focus, after all, was fidelity to the production process which, in turn, was the engine that allowed more goods to be sold and consumed.

2.  Lean Processes.  By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the economy shifted away from production-line compatible products to include more services and flexible products, and the large, top-down bureaucracies that fueled the industrial revolution became too slow, cumbersome, and inflexible.  The primary focus during this post WWII period became efficiency and internal improvement.  This led to new methods and practices, such as those  espoused by Edward Deming and Philip Crosby, including kaizen, continuous process improvement, zero defects, business process re-engineering, and lean manufacturing.  

The emphasis was on simplification in all parts of the organization (not just the production line), eliminating waste, and continuous improvement ideas generated by people closest to the work being done.  People were no longer viewed as cogs in the production process but essential contributors to improving performance.  The Toyota Production System (TPS) was a leading example of heralding the voice and role of people in producing quality products.  

3.  Stars.  The next great economic and social shift is what World Economic Forum has termed the Third Industrial Revolution (1960s to 1990s) which was driven by semiconductors and computers.  This is the world of analytics, algorithms, heuristics, and big data.  The companies that excelled were ones that were agile, responsive, and innovative.  Highly skilled people became central to creating and designing the type of services and tools that would drive growth, innovation, advantage, and profits.  Bill Gates, then at Microsoft, concurred:  “Take away our 30 best people and Microsoft becomes an ordinary company.”

This focus on high performers was similarly advocated in McKinsey’s groundbreaking The War for Talent (2001).  There were some dissenters (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell), but most people believed this approach made sense:  Bring in a bunch of very smart people, surround them with traditional talent management practices, and the organization will prosper.  To the smartest belongs the spoils.

4.  Collaborative Cultures.   This preference for stars seemed to work, but then warning signs emerged.  There were seismic failures of organizations comprised of very smart but dysfunctional people. There have also been numerous examples of IQ/smarts not being nearly as important to high performance as we thought (e.g., Google’s Project Aristotle). 

Dave Ulrich read these tea leaves with his book Victory through Organization—Why the War for Talent is Failing Your Company (2017).  His view—backed by research—is that by improving the workplace, the workforce can flourish.  It is about building organizational capabilities to improve innovation, enhance collaboration, reduce bureaucratic barriers, and open participation for all.  Ulrich’s research showed that by focusing on these organizational capabilities, the return is four times greater than just developing individual talent. 

What are the organizational capabilities that matter most and foster greater collaboration and commitment?  One place to look is the literature and research on high-performing companies.  It is useful to come up with a manageable nucleus of these critical characteristics that truly matter. 

            The Big Six+                      Description
Transparency and Open ParticipationNo more secrets.  People will do the right thing if they have the opportunity and information they need.  Everyone is included and can participate.
TrustThe bedrock of a reciprocal relationship.  Trust is a multiplier:  The more trust is repaid, the more it extends. 
Aligned Purpose and ValuesMatters of the heart.  Believing in something counts.


Having multiple bottom lines.  

Flexibility and ChoiceA two-way street.  People take responsibility for their choices.  Choice begets ownership.
Challenging Learning ExperiencesKeeping people fresh, marketable, and at the top of their game.  Showing you care by investing in people.
Joint AccountabilityBeing accountable to each other, not just bosses.  We are in this together, not separately.
+     is SerendipityHave some fun, Be memorable.  Laugh.

Figure 1: Critical Qualities Leading to Greater Collaboration and Commitment

Michael Arena (2019) reinforced these findings when he said it is not enough to bring in the best people (i.e., stars), but to bring out the best in all people.  It is about creating organizational cultures where the genius is not what happens inside people’s heads, but between or among them as they work together.  Social capital (people working together) became just as important, if not more important, than individual human capital.

The world of work shifted to reflect these new realities.  Today, more than 80% of the work done in mid to large sized organizations is accomplished in teams.  These teams have a common goal, are usually comprised of four to nine members, are business and customer focused, enable contribution by all, are built for experimentation, and change as fast as the world around them.  Work is now a team sport, where teams are agile, inclusive, cross-disciplinary, and self-governing.  Organizations now potentially have the capacity to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Back to the Track:  The Wisdom of the Trifecta

Each of these four—the production line, lean processes, stars, and collaborative cultures—has made important contributions to improved performance over the years.  These four approaches reflected the market, economic, and resources of their times, and each was also a reaction to what transpired before them:  Big multilayered organizations led to the need for leaner processes, more efficiency and greater roles for people; which led to the emphasis on high performing people, the best talent, and stars; which, in turn, led to focusing more on teams, culture and organizations rather than individual skills and accomplishments. 

So, what are the lessons of these eras for today?  How should we now view the quest for better performance, productivity, advantage, and competitive strength?  This will doubtlessly change in the years ahead as new challenges and opportunities are encountered, but what do we know at this moment? 

There are three factors that characterize high-performing organizations in the third decade of the Twentieth First Century.  These all have historical precedent, as we have just seen.

The High-Performance Trifecta  


1.  A Talented Workforce….

The business of business is people.

2.  Collaborating in an Agile and Vibrant Workplace….

Even the brightest flower will whither in a barren garden.

3.  Delivering Meaningful Results and Outcomes.

Just because something can be counted doesn’t mean that it counts.

                  Figure 2:  The High Performance Trifecta

Remember that The Trifecta consists of three factors (or horses) that must all be present and in the right order.  If you take one part of the equation away, the system stops working. The Trifecta for High Performing Organizations is:  1)  A Talented Workforce (the people), 2) Collaborating in an Agile and Vibrant Workplace (the organization), and 3) Delivering Meaningful Results and Outcomes (the impacts).  All three of these factors must exist, and it is the equilibrium and balance among them that is the key to enduring, not just immediate, success.

Some people contend that the real secrets to high performing organizations are such popular qualities as more human organization, better employee experience, mindful employees, agile teams, or leaders with greater emotional intelligence.  These are all admirable qualities, but they are not enough.  A single part of the equation doesn’t work or capture what is required.  For example, individual personal qualities may not necessarily lead to more productive workplaces, greater collaboration, and meaningful results.  Can someone be resilient but not a supportive team member?   Can a person be empathetic but not able to influence people to change behavior?  The link between individual personal qualities to improved organizational performance and outcomes is not always apparent.

Another example:  An organization may have great people and a supportive culture, but if it fails to deliver results that matter, then it provides little more than an enjoyable experience.  Outcomes matter, but not all outcomes are the same.  It is relatively easy, for example, to deliver short-term financial business results by indiscriminately cutting costs and laying off people.  But are these results meaningful, consistent with a vibrant workplace, and supported by the talented, committed workforce?  Not likely, so its impact will be limited at best.  In some difficult situations, these tough actions may be necessary, but they must be done, to every extent possible, with the support and reinforcement of the people and values of the organization.  If you break the Trifecta, the bet is lost; and  if the three factors in The Trifecta are not aligned, then the organization, just like a jockey not in synch with his horse, wanders all over the track.  The wisdom of the Trifecta is how everything works together, not apart.


Thanks for reading.  For those who want more specifics behind the Trifecta, high performance organizations, and driving business results, please see Fearless Talent Choices (2020), available on Amazon.  For those who want to explore more about The Sport of Kings, two great books are Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand set amid the Great Depression, and Horse by Geraldine Brooks that charts the path of the greatest racing stallion in American history  from the pre-Civil War to present times.

Written by: Dave Forman

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