Updating the Definition of Workplace Teams

According to Benko & Anderson (2010), “Companies use forty times as many projects now as they used twenty years ago, heightening the need for teamwork… Work is changing so fast that the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 60 percent of all new jobs in the twenty-first century will requires skills that only 20 percent of current employees possess” (p. 2).  Teams are a complex topic, ruled by a simplistic mindset, including getting people together, communicating a problem, electing a leader, and assigning work.  Good teams add measures (metrics) ahead of time to assess how they’re doing as they go, while better teams incorporate communications about themselves ahead of time to better evaluate how each will add to the project’s collective success (individual value propositions).  Yet is this really it?  In a Google/YouTube/Flickr world, are we really doing everything we can to bring teams into the 21st century, and is technology the only possible contributor today?  Not really.

Consider the Spring 2011 edition of the MIT Sloan Management Review.  In the article, Why Project Networks Beat Project Teams, the question was how can organizations help teams successfully tackle complex projects (Cummings & Pletcher, 2011).  Findings included the following:

  • By tapping the personal networks of team members to create a project network, a team can receive valuable information and feedback from “noncore contributors” not part of the official team.
  • The number of noncore contributors who helped a team was a positive and significant predictor of team success.
  • Managers can explicitly encourage the formation of project networks.

The implication here then is the concept of a project team has for too long been too rigidly defined.  Open source is another great example of this, and the overarching idea to both concepts being the team does not need rigidity to garner performance; whereas the collective is a more powerful contributor to team success. Have you ever looked on, as a team just outside of your  each could have been helped by something you knew, and you sat back asking, “why didn’t they just ask me?”  That is this concept in action.  Today’s organizations are not the hierarchies of yesterday, and are not the fixed installments of positions / roles / rights / responsibilities we once knew.  Departments work together more seamlessly, challenges require the collective insight of the whole, and team structures must change in order to equally adapt.

As a final thought, to truly conceptualize the shift discussed, consider this from Blenko, Mankins, & Rogers (2010) of Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in your organization:

“The ultimate challenge for any organization is not just to fix individual [decisions].  It is to create an environment where best practices happen naturally – where the whole organizational system supports people in making and executing good decisions quickly.  To sustain great performance, you have to determine which elements of the organization actually do reinforce good decisions and which don’t.  Then you can adjust the parts that are getting in the way.”

– Justin

Benko, C. & Anderson, M. (2010). The corporate lattice: Achieving high performance in the changing world of work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Blenko, M.W., Mankins, M.C., & Rogers, P. (2010). Decide & deliver: 5 steps to breakthrough performance in your organization. Boston, MA: Bain & Company, Inc.

Cummings, J. & Pletcher, C. (2011). Why project networks beat project teams. MIT Sloan Management Review, 52(3). 75-80.

Hamel, G. (2007). The future of management. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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