This week I wade into an obscure debate about teamwork research, but give me a chance before you click away. In the process, I will hand you a powerful set of arguments to use when a boss pressures you to do something with your team just because it worked with another team. Scientists call that "anecdotal evidence," and over the years have presented solid proof it is often wrong. It isn't always wrong, so if you are presented with a practice that does not take a huge investment, give it a shot. But if there's a chunk of time and money involved, and you question the value for your team, this post will help you fend off the "request."
John Hollenbeck of Michigan State Univ., Bianca Beersma of the Univ. of Amsterdam, and Maartje Schouten of Erasmus Univ. Rotterdam reviewed teamwork studies dating back 25 years. In their Academy of Management Review article they list 42 terms used by various scientists to classify teams. Another study had 14 more. Despite my having reviewed nearly 600 studies, some of these terms were new to me ("X-teams?" "Behavioral teams?").
There was a lot of overlap in the characteristics used to define each term, but the characteristics were grouped in different ways. Some classifications also suffer false breaks, such as an early attempt that separated teams by whether they were front-line teams—assembly workers or customer representatives, for example—and whether they had to improvise. What about, the authors say, "first line teams that have to improvise?"One of the biggest problems is where to draw the lines between categories. Most characteristics fall somewhere on a continuum blending two opposites. A team can be totally micro-managed or completely self-directed, but most fall somewhere in between. In fact, just like individuals on bell curves, teams usually clump around the middle of any scale.
Research is harmed by this lack of agreement because it is hard to compare and combine studies. We know some common dynamics of leadership teams in Fortune 500 corporations because anyone who can read Fortune can tell you what teams fit that category. But it is much harder to compare "decision-making" teams with "production" teams given that many teams make decisions and then put them into action.
One way out of the morass is to dispense with categories, Hollenbeck, Beersma, and Schouten suggest. Researchers could agree on the characteristics to use in describing teams rather than worrying about how to group them: "As an analogy, this is like moving from a navigational system relying on… constellations (i.e., are we under the Big Dipper or Little Dipper, or is this not a dipper at all but, rather, the Big Bear?) to one relying on GPS coordinates."
Across the different categories in the studies they reviewed, the authors say, there were common characteristics. "That is, even though different systems generate very different… categories, they seem to use similar building blocks to do so." The main three were:
(1) skill differentiation—the degree to which members have specialized knowledge or functional capacities that make it more or less difficult to substitute members;
(2) authority differentiation—the degree to which decision-making responsibility is vested in individual members, subgroups of the team, or the collective as a whole; and
(3) temporal stability—the degree to which team members have a history of working together in the past and an expectation of working together in the future.
Regarding #1, the authors add, "We take a broad perspective on the term skill here in order to also include differences in experience, education, culture, gender, or any other factor where differentiation is likely to have an impact on the ability of the team to perform the work." I think it important to recognize that the authors are not proposing new ways to describe teams. Instead, they are suggesting all teams be described using characteristics already used by many researchers and team leaders alike, and that clearly match the real world.
Since this journal article is written for the benefit of researchers, a big chunk of it goes into the ways this approach makes more sense in study design, statistics, and comparisons. Fortunately, Hollenbeck, Beersma, and Schouten also dedicate a section to how this could help managers. "As we noted already, there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that certain types of teams are likely to experience certain strengths and weaknesses, and this can be used to inform practical decisions regarding organizational change," they write. If scientists agree on a few characteristics to use like the three these three researchers found, a manager could figure out where her team fell on each continuum. That done, she could learn the plusses and minuses of teams with those characteristics and better predict the impact of changing hers. The team leader who empowers too fast and begins to see related problems could follow research regarding skill sets or team permanence to slide the team in directions that counteract the "growing pains" of empowerment.
While science makes those decisions, you now have the set of arguments I promised you in the lead paragraph. When someone suggests you do something with your team that you don't think will work, ask them questions based on those three characteristics above. Is their team cross-functional ("skill differentiation")? Do their team members make a lot of their decisions independently of their boss ("authority differentiation")? Is theirs a project team, or instead a functional team doing the same work over and over ("temporal differentiation")? The more similar their team is, the more you should listen. But the more that someone's answers differ from those for your team, the better your grounds for skepticism. You can push back by saying how your team differs and consider other approaches—like those in my free SuddenTeams™ Expert System or my high-ROI team builder services—that would be a better way to go for your group.
Action Item: Draw three horizontal lines. Label one "Skills." Write "Complex" on one end and "Simple" on the other. Label the second "Authority." Write "Manager/Procedure Directed" and "Self-Directed" on the ends. For the third, "Time," use "Short-Term" and "Permanent." Now mark where you think your team falls on each (refer to the paragraph after the bullet list regarding "Skills"). For real fun, put these on a proper scale or a Web survey and have each team member anonymously mark them up. Then hold a meeting where you discuss the results.
Source: Hollenbeck, J., B. Beersma, M. Schouten (2012), "Beyond Team Types and Taxonomies: A Dimensional Scaling Conceptualization for Team Description," Academy of Management Review 37(1):82.