This is part 4 of a series exploring what makes an effective team. If you want to know how to shape the task given to a team and the optimal size of a team, this post is for you.

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Condition 2: A True Team Task

A true team task is one that cannot be reached by working individually. A task that needs the close cooperation of every person in a team if it is to be successfully mastered. Creating a new system for customer service, expanding to vastly different geographies, coming up with new products and services are all things that surpass the abilities of what workgroups can successfully deliver. It is not that work-groups can’t deliver those things, but results will likely be less than optimal. The typical rate of project failure in today’s businesses is often portrayed to be as high as 70%.

A true team task is often not defined by its nature, but by the performance aspiration.

Let’s take the practical example of implementing a big, enterprise-wide IT application. To implement such a complex system is entirely feasible by working in a workgroup fashion. An experienced project manager is dividing up the work into chunks assigned to team leads, as team leads divide up the work further. While there is some level of cooperation required between team members, this can be organized, for example through the approval of blueprints and in integration tests. Cooperation is limited. Work is parceled out to individuals by managers. Managers rely on project plans that break down all the things to do into detailed tasks and who should do them by when. This proven way of working that will produce results if competent professionals drive it.

So, is implementing a big, enterprise-wide IT application not “a true team task”? There are two answers to it.

  • No, it’s not. It does not really require close cooperation between its members. Instead, such a project is relying on a proven, scripted way of working that allows all individual efforts to be summed up into the final product, the IT system.
  • Yes, it is, if the performance aspiration is high enough. For example, if the ambition is to do that in say two years, a manager led workgroup can do that in the mode described above. However, if the team is supposed to do that within one year, a genuine team effort is what it takes. To cut a year in throughput times needs people to rise above their competent selves and come up with something together that is collectively greater than themselves.  Most of us tend to agree with this instinctively. We know that if we want to achieve something extraordinary, we need some team magic. Moreover, our intuitive understanding is supported by scientific evidence, like the one from Mr. Hackman: A true team can achieve magic.

But unfounded ambitions, won’t do any good, too

The problem is that companies often set extraordinary high-performance targets, because ambitions at the start are high, or they need to overcome the hurdles of budget approval and low bids are what is asked for.  However, usually, the way a project is executed reveals a lack of understanding of the art of building high-performance teams. I have seen this dynamic playing out multiple times in my career in business. While I know that a project could be done in a fraction of time and costs, I did not advise some customer to put in the low numbers. I knew that some clients we not ready for a high-performance approach. Sometimes, most often really, companies as a whole are not prepared to embrace a genuine team approach, as described in the twelve conditions of effective teams. Organizations which embraced my advice may have ended up with long, tedious, but ultimately successful projects. Organizations which rejected that advice and went for ambitious performance targets while relying on traditional workgroup ways of working ended up with significant time and quality problems, budget fiascos, vastly increased employee and management turn-over.

Companies got to lay the groundworks for their ambitions. I have described that point in general terms in a 2016 post Execute crisply with sharp tools.

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Besides the occasional major project, true team tasks are essential for day to day operations of teams too. If the performance aspiration of maintenance, customer service, or sales teams is extraordinarily high, the chances are that a high-performance approach is called for and one should have a look at the 12 conditions. If the sum of all individual contributions is not enough to reach the overall target, a true team approach is called for.

Teams are needed if it gets real complex

All this might be understood as a call for overly ambitious targets. Indeed, there is a blurred line here: It is tough to judge whether the combination of skills and minds in a team will make the goal possible or the target is just wishful thinking. Even for those well-meaning, competent managers who know and do everything in their power to provide the 12 conditions of effective teams, an over aspiring, unrealistic or outright silly target might doom the exercise right from the start. As a rule of thumb, it is useful to understand the level of collaboration between team members that is really needed. The less the need to discuss with one another, the less the need for a high-performance team, the less critical the twelve conditions are.

It takes much collaboration between individuals to deliver good results in complex environments or systems. Complex systems are those where cause and effect can neither be predicted with certainty nor is the relationship between a cause and an effect stable. A machine, for example, is not a complex system. It is just a complicated system, but not a complex one, as its parts are known and behave predictably. All social systems involve humans, and therefore are rather complex than complicated systems, as humans act inconsistently from time to time. Therefore, all teams are complex, and companies tend to be very complex.

Groups of individuals can reliably master less complex tasks without much need of collaboration between them. Take for example service teams in call centers. The core of the work is done by individual agents on the phone, during the conversation on the phone. Co-workers can be useful to reflect with before and after the customer call, but all work is centered on the individual without the need for much collaboration.

The thing is: The more complex the task, the more it becomes a “true team task,” the more collaboration is needed and, in turn, the more critical it is to consider the 12 conditions in the work design of a team.

Most companies have configured themselves to be less complex

Indeed, in most organizations, most performance contexts may not lend themselves well for a true team task. Only if the performance ambition is high enough and the nature of the task requires intense communication between team members, a team effort is called for. Many businesses use the term “team” in an inflationary member and think of all groups of people as teams. So, they invest in nice team building events sponsored by HR budgets and helped by a host of business trainers. This is as inefficient as it can get: To spend money or time on team building while the need for collaboration is really not that important at all is to create waste.  It usually suffices to give such a work-group a good understanding of expected behaviors, control the application of those behaviors and let them do their work.

The point is: On a case by case basis, the work group is a better choice to organize work inside traditional organizations. But on the whole, if the whole organizational design of the company would not have been set-up to contain complexity and promote predictability, the team would be better choice. Most companies have configured themselves to be less complex, to suppress the complexity of the market. Designs that allow the complexity of the market inside the company usually involve a bit more structures that promote self-management within a company. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Condition 3: Team Size 5

Defining a true team task is tricky. It’s time for some refreshing simplicity: The optimal team size is five people. Do not build any teams much bigger or smaller than that. The standard variation around the optimal team size of five is two. So, any team size of 5 +/- 2 is the optimal team size.  Beyond that size, split teams. Beneath that size, is just the pair. For two people working together, the laws of teams are not as relevant as the laws of psychology and good communication.

Even the science on team size is rather simple. With every member added to the group the number of relations which each individual needs to build and maintain increases linearly. In a team of three, a team member needs to develop and maintain two links to the other team members, in a team of four three links, in a team of 5 four links.

However, in order to effectively operate within a social group, it is not sufficient to build and maintain links with all other team members, it is vital to theorize about the ties that others have with one another, too. If you know that Joe and Sue do not get along well in a particular aspect, it may be better to circumvent that problem before it arises. Effective social groups do not only care for the relationships that they have individually, and they care about the links that others have between them. They care for the collective. They care for the team.

The trouble is that the total number of links in a team does not increase linearly. It grows exponentially. The total number of links between team members = N * (N-1)/2, whereby N again stands for the number of people in a team.:

  • A team of three everyone has a total of three links.
  • A team of four has six links.
  • A team of five has ten links, and in a team of seven has 21 links.

This number rises exponentially. In a team of 20 persons, every team member would have to build and maintain 190 connections. Why the jump from seven to eight team members might not seem like a big deal, the total number of links in the collective increases from twenty-one to twenty-eight. While the number of links per person is just increasing by one (from 7 to 8)- that is 14% –  the number of total links in the system is increasing by seven (from 21 to 28), 33%. Increase the team size by three from seven to ten, and this ratio goes up from a 42% increase in the number of links per person to 214% for the total number of links in the group.

This a mathematical way of saying: Size matters. The negative performance impacts of increasing group size are hard-wired into teams. With rising team size people can relate to one another less and less. To invest more in coordinating the team helps a bit but can never offset the negative impact on performance fully. Jeff Bezos is known to have coined the phrase “two-pizza teams” as a rule of thumb for determining team size at Amazon: A team that cannot be fed by two large pizza’s needs to be split.

  • If intense collaboration is what is needed, low team size is the way to go.
  • If intense collaboration is not required, don’t go for the team approach at all and organize the group as a work team instead.

It might not always be easy to cut down on team size, as this or that skill or organization needs to be represented. In this case, consider two things: Either split the team in two and manage those separately or come up with a better definition of the team boundaries, especially who is on the team and who is not.

That’s it for today. In the next post, in two weeks, I will get to discuss a very exciting subject: Do teams need a manager?

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Audible…no: I hope you enjoyed this post. Let me know what you think!

Key points

  • Most tasks can be made a great one for a team if you just level up the performance aspiration
  • HOWEVER, do not level up the ambition, without having laid some solid groundwork inside the organization for those conditions that make teams great
  • Most companies have configured themselves to be less complex, to suppress the complexity of the market. Therefore the workgroup is often a better choice
  • Team Size 5. Team Size 5. Team Size 5. GOT  IT?
  • Two Pizzas – one Team

Previous posts in this series on effective teams:

  1. Performance in general and what makes individual performance: You call yourself a Great Manager? Let Me Hear Your Theory of Performance!
  2. Why Most Companies Should Not Seek to Work in Teams
  3. The twelve conditions for effective teams, including condition one, a compelling direction

Posted by Frank Thun

Management. Systems. Liberation

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