This is part 6 of a series exploring what makes an effective team. Read this if you are interested in great teamwork and high-performance teams in businesses.

Key points:

  1. The higher team diversity, the greater the chance of solving complex problems
  2. Diversity that is most useful for a team comes in two shapes: A. Diversity of Skills and B. Diversity of Personality
  3. Team’s made up of “the best and brightest” are often bested by teams made up less skilled, but more diverse individuals
  4. More homogenous teams are better suited for repetitive tasks
  5. Diversity is an investment: You might get novel solutions, but you have to invest first and provide time for the team to form
  6. Keep a team stable. Period.

The diversity of people and the stability of membership are crucial for a team. Each person brings into the team a set of skills, intrinsic drive, and beliefs. What matters is the way those individual assets can be employed for the team.

Diversity

Let’s talk about diversity first. Diversity breeds innovation. The more diverse people are, the more original and innovative the solutions that the team can come up with. Diversity is a crucial driver of innovation.[1]Get together a crazy bunch of highly skilled people with wildly divergent world-views and backgrounds and the team will likely deliver highly innovative results. The only thing that stands in the way is the integrative ability of the team to get from immense social stress to the right level of social bonds that allows a joint team effort.[2]

We tend to glorify innovation, but innovation is finding small creative solutions in daily work, too. Any effective team is a team in search of big and small solutions, every day.  Diverse teams find it easier to come up with novel solutions.

There are lots of things that make people different, but the two elements with the most impact on team performance are skills and personality. A team needs to have all the required skills available to do a job. The more complex and unpredictable the environment is, the more diverse skills are required. It might turn out that some of those skills are not actually needed. However, complex situations are hard to predict. Who would have thought that calligraphy would be a useful skill for Steve Jobs while designing the User Interface for Apple IOS Operating system? So, it is not only important to have the right kind of skills inside a team, it is beneficial to have more diverse skills available than one would think are needed, too.

Then there is personality, which is much harder to measure. Combining different personality types, like introverted thinkers and extroverted achievers, optimistic and cautious people, inventors and perfectionists is important. A practical way to think about different team roles has been described by Meredith Belbin in 1981, the “Belbin Team Inventory.”[3]While such and other psychological tests are useful for choosing the right people for jobs, not many companies use them, or they fail to apply the insights gained from such an analysis in a carefully crafted decision process.[4]

Philipp Tetlock, a British researcher 2016 writes in his 2016 book “Superforecasting”, that diverse groups of problem solvers consistently outperform individuals as well as groups composed of the best and the brightest. That’s not to say that skill is irrelevant, but a better-rounded set of skills is more useful than more of the same. One rocket scientist in a team of ten production engineers makes a HUGE difference, but ten rocket scientists and no production engineer leaves the team with no idea how to manufacture that good dam rocket.

Philipp Tetlock, a British researcher 2016 writes in his 2016 book “Superforecasting”, that diverse groups of problem solvers consistently outperform individuals as well as groups composed of the best and the brightest. That’s not to say that skill is irrelevant, but a better-rounded set of skills is more useful than more of the same. One rocket scientist in a team of ten production engineers makes a HUGE difference, but ten rocket scientists and no production engineer leaves the team with no idea how to manufacture that good dam rocket.


Still, diversity has its drawbacks. The more diverse a team is, the less cohesive it is. But it is cohesiveness, which makes the team stable. It is tough to align a bunch of very different persons into a productive way of working. The more diverse the team, the more time is needed for people to bond with one another, and the higher the potential for conflict. Diverse teams are great for innovation, but homogenous teams are great for stability.

There is a trade-off between innovation and the stability of a team.

Stability

The integrative ability of a team is limited. It is time-consuming and emotionally stressful to integrate new team members or part with existing ones. A team needs stability. A team that is changing every day or week, where team members keep dropping in or out is no team. There is no time to bond with another, and there can be no shared feeling of commitment, there can be no “us.” Again, this sounds rather obvious. There is a tendency in business to ignore stability. There are always unforeseen things happening, and there are always other priorities emerging, so often there is no other way then exchanging team members, at least for some periods of time. Just a day of the week, maybe, how bad can that be?

Pretty bad. A team which is continually changing might have no chance to perform.  People might never get sufficiently close for effective teamwork. Even worse, if people keep on dropping in and out, people learn that it makes no sense to build up good working relations. People might be gone tomorrow.

A lack of stability hurts the performance of a team tremendously. People need time to get to know each other, and they need to have the time to familiarize themselves with the collective work. Only then the group will build a shared mental model of the way work is done. The academic evidence comes to a universal verdict: The longer a team is stable, with no team members entering or leaving, the better the team’s performance.[5]In a study of research teams, Mr. Hackman has found that exchanging one or two team members in a team of 5 to 7 team members doesn’t hurt performance only if it happens every two to three years. If a team member is to be added, exchanged or dismissed at all this should be done in the early phases of a team’s life cycle, for example with an eye on increasing the skills available to the team.

Yet it is hard to keep a team stable in a dynamic business environment. Certain things can be done to increase the resilience of a team against excessive fluctuation:

•    Get the team composition right from the start. Invest extra time and care to recruit the right people, free them up, and back-fill vacated lines positions. Compromises made early, during the forming of a team, will come back to haunt you manifold later. It is easier to start a team if you allow for some compromises, but it is hard to deliver the results that make the team a resounding success

•    Set the team’s task broadly. A broadly defined task is likely to be more stable if business priorities keep changing. Thereby, while priorities for the team might change in detail over time, the overall direction of the team will still be stable. A team faced with a broadly defined direction in a dynamic business will likely configure itself to use frequent iterations of work, reflection and adjust to evolve their work to the changing priorities. That’s a core idea of the Agile movement.

•    Go for more homogenous teams at the costs of diverse teams. The team will properly not come up with a lot of innovation, but it is inherently more stable. It starts up with much less motivation and coordination debt. Diverse teams find it easier to come up with novel solutions. Homogenous teams find it easier to apply already known solutions. If my house is on fire in Bordesholm, my hometown in the north of Hamburg, I want those local volunteer fire-fighters rushing in, who know themselves since elementary school. I am not interested in novel solutions to fight the fire. I am interested in getting it out, fast and reliably.

Sometimes – and I guess not to infrequently- innovativeness might not be what is called for. It might be more important to get a job done

•    Finally, consider doing less things with teams. Teams start with debt. It takes time to recuperate this debt. If the payoff period is likely to be not long enough to achieve break-even prior this or that change ripping the team apart, it is better to work on things in a manager led, workgroup setting. Only the most important things should be done in a team, as these tend to be more immune from ever-shifting priorities

The Integrative Ability of Organizations

But wait, there is another thing you might want to try. What about if forming and reforming, norming and re-norming teams is a natural part of an organization? What about if the integrative capabilities of groups are so high, that they allow for much more instability without hurting performance too much? Think for example of consulting teams, especially highly specialized ones. Those kinds of teams need to reform and re-norm all of the time, with each new engagement and each new client. While research has shown that even their performance would benefit from more stability of the team itself, good consulting organizations have usually achieved a high integrative capability. In fact, integrative capacity needs to be part of their very business model. However, consulting companies are project-based organizations. So, their model of operating won’t help other types of organizations.

Now imagine an organization that comes with a high degree of integrative capacity, so that effective teams bond fast.  Where people are used to work in effective, high performing team environments. They know what is expected of them and the forming, storming, and norming phases are mastered rapidly. Indeed, some norms for teamwork comes inbuilt in each coworker because it is wired into the DNA of the organization itself. Such organizations are those that rely more on self-managing teams than the traditional hierarchy.

(More on self-managing teams can be found in the previous post https://liberated.company/2018/10/18/forget-about-agile-reduce-overbearance-in-management-first/)

That’s it for today. Let me know what you think!

By the way, I decided to reduce the frequency of posts a bit, as I am busy writing a longer text for the next couple of months.


[1]Pentland, Alexander (2014) ‘Social Physics’

[2]American Psychologist, and disciple of Abraham Maslow, Clayton Alderfer calls this Under- and overboundedness. Alderfer, Clayton (2005) ‘The five laws of group and intergroup dynamics’

[3]Belbin, Meredith (1981) ‚Management Teams‘

[4]Bock, Lazlo (2016) ‘Work Rules!’

[5]Hackman, Richard (2002) ‘Leading Teams’

And: Tetlock, Philip (2016) ‘Superforecasting’; Page, Scott E. (2008) ‘The Difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups…’

Posted by Frank Thun

Management. Systems. Liberation

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