Around the globe, much of the work in organizations gets done in groups or teams. When these units work well, they elevate the performance of ordinary individuals to extraordinary heights. When teams malfunction, as too often happens, they erode the potential contributions of even the most talented members. What determines how well groups perform? As the examples illustrate, the performance of a small group depends heavily on structural design and clarity. A key ingredient of a top-notch team is an appropriate blueprint of roles and relationships aligned with common goals or missions.
In this chapter, we explore the structural features of small groups and teams to show how restructuring can improve group performance.Webegin by describing various design options for teams, accenting the relationship between design and task. Next, using sports as an analogy, we discuss patterns of team con”guration, coordination, and interdependence suited to different situations. Thenwe describe the characteristics of high-performing teams. Finally, we discuss the pros and cons of self-managing teams—a hot topic in recent years.
TASKS AND LINKAGES IN SMALL GROUPS Groups choose among a range of options to develop a structure that maximizes individuals’ contributions while minimizing the chronic problems that plague small groups. The nature of the work or task provides a key to shaping group structure. Tasks vary in complexity, clarity, predictability, and volatility (Hærem, Pentland, and Miller, 2015). The task-structure relationship in small groups is parallel to that in larger organizations.
Contextual Variables As we saw in Chapter 4, simple tasks align with basic structures—clearly de”ned roles, elementary forms of interdependence, and coordination by plan or command. Projects that are more complex or volatile generally require more complicated structural forms: !exible roles, reciprocal give-and-take, and synchronization through lateral dealings and communal feedback. If a situation becomes exceptionally ambiguous and fast paced, particularly when time is a factor, groups may be unable to make decisions quickly enough without centralized authority and tight scripts. Planning a SEAL Team Six mission or transplanting a kidney is not the same as painting a house or setting up a family outing. Performance and morale suffer, and troubles multiply when groups lack an appropriate structure.
Getting structure right requires careful consideration of pertinent contextual variables, some of which are vague or tough to assess:
• What is our mission?
• What actions are required?
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• Who should do what?
• Who is in charge?
• How should we make decisions?
• How do we coordinate efforts?
• What do individual members care about most: time, quality, participation?
• What are the special skills and talents of each group member?
• How does this group relate to others?
• How will we determine success?
Some Fundamental Team Con!gurations A high percentage of employees’ and managers’ time is spent in meetings and working groups of three to twelve people. To illustrate design options, we examine several fundamental structural con”gurations from studies of “ve-member teams. These basic patterns are too simple to apply to larger, more complex systems, but they help to illustrate how different structural forms respond to a variety of challenges.
The “rst is a one-boss arrangement; one person has authority over others (see Exhibit 5.1). Information and decisions !ow from the top. Group members offer
Exhibit 5.1. One Boss.
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information to and communicate primarily with the of”cial leader rather than with one another. This array is ef”cient and fast and works best in relatively simple and straightfor- ward situations when it is easy for the boss to stay on top of things. Circumstances that are more complicated or volatile can overload the boss, producing delays or bad decisions, unless the person in charge has an unusual level of skill, expertise, and energy. Subordinates quickly become frustrated with directives that are late or out of touch.
A second alternative creates a management level below the boss (see Exhibit 5.2). Two individuals have authority over speci”c areas of the group’s work. Information and decisions !ow through them. This arrangement works when a task is divisible; it reduces the boss’s span of control, freeing up time to concentrate on mission, strategy, or relationships with higher-ups. But adding a new layer limits access from the lower levels to the boss. Communication becomes slower and more cumbersome, and may eventually erode morale and performance.
Exhibit 5.2. Dual Authority.
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Exhibit 5.3. Simple Hierarchy.
Another option is a simple hierarchy with a middle manager who reports to the boss and, in turn, supervises and communicates with others (see Exhibit 5.3). A similar arrangement at the White House frees the President to focus on mission and external relations while leaving operational details to the chief of staff. Although this type of hierarchy further limits access to the top, it can be more ef”cient than a dual-manager arrangement. At the same time, friction between operational and top-level managers is commonplace, and number two may be tempted to usurp number one’s position.
A fourth option is a circle network, where information and decisions !ow sequentially from one group member to another (see Exhibit 5.4). Each can add to or modify whatever comes around. This design relies solely on lateral coordination and simpli”es communica- tion. Each person has to deal directly with only two others; transactions are therefore easier to manage. However, one weak link in the chain can undermine the entire enterprise. The circle can bog down with complex tasks that require more reciprocity.
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Exhibit 5.4. Circle Network.
A “nal possibility sets up what small group researchers call the all-channel, or star, network (see Exhibit 5.5). This design, familiar to Team Six operators, is similar to Helgesen’s web of inclusion. It creates multiple connections so that everyone can talk to anyone else. Information !ows freely; decisions sometimes require touching multiple bases. Morale in an all-channel network is usually high. The arrangement works well if a task is amorphous or complicated, requiring substantial mutual adjustment, particularly if each member brings distinct knowledge or skill. But this structure can be time consuming, and decision making may slow to a crawl, making it cumbersome and inef”cient for simpler undertakings or for groups that have dif”culty coming to agreement. It works best when team members bring well-developed communication skills, enjoy participation, tolerate ambiguity, embrace diversity, are able to manage con!ict, and agree on how the team will make decisions.
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Exhibit 5.5. All-Channel Network.
TEAMWORK AND INTERDEPENDENCE Even in the relatively simple case of “ve-person groups, the formal network is critical to team functioning. In the give-and-take of larger organizations, things get more complicated. We can get a fresh perspective and sharpen our thinking about structure in groups by looking beyond typical work organizations. Making the familiar strange often helps the strange become familiar.
Team sports, among the world’s most popular pastimes, offer a helpful analog to clarify how teamwork varies depending on the nature of the game. Every competition calls for its own unique patterns of interaction. Because of this, distinctive structures are required for different sports. Social architecture is thus remarkably different for baseball, football, and basketball.
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Baseball Baseball player Pete Rose once noted, “Baseball is a team game, but nine men whomeet their individual goals make a nice team” (Keidel, 1984, p. 8). In baseball, as in cricket and other bat-and-ball games, a loosely integrated confederacy makes a team. Individual efforts are mostly autonomous, seldom involving more than two or three players at a time. Signi”cant distances, particularly on defense, separate players. Loose connections reduce the need for synchronization among the various positions. The pitcher and catcher need to coordinate, as do in”elders dealing with a ground ball or out”elders playing a high !y. But batters are alone at the plate, and “elders are often on their own to make a play.
Managers’ decisions are mostly tactical, normally involving individual substitutions or actions. Managers come and go without seriously disrupting the team’s play. Players can transfer from one team to another with relative ease. John Updike summed it up well: “Of all the team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittence of action, its immense and tranquil “eld sparsely salted with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seemed to be best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game” (Keidel, 1984, pp. 14–15).
Football American football and other chess-like sports such as rugby and curling create a structural con”guration very different from baseball. These games proceed through a series of moves, or plays. Between plays, teams plan strategy for the next move. Unlike baseball players, football players perform in close proximity. Linemen and offensive backs hear, see, and often touch one another. Each play involves every player on the “eld. A prearranged plan links efforts sequentially. The actions of linemen pave the way for the movement of backs; a defensive team’s “eld position becomes the starting point for the offense, and vice versa. In the transition from offense to defense, specialty platoons play a pivotal role.
Efforts of individual players are tightly synchronized. George Allen, former coach of the Washington Redskins, put it this way: “A football team is a lot like a machine. It’s made up of parts. If one part doesn’t work, one player pulling against you and not doing his job, the whole machine fails” (Keidel, 1984, p. 9).
Tight connections among parts require a football team to be well integrated, mainly through planning and top-down control. The primary units are the offensive, defensive, and specialty platoons, each with its own coordinator. Under the direction of the head coach, the team uses scouting reports and other surveillance to develop a strategy or game plan in advance. During the game, the head coach typically makes strategic decisions. Assistants or designated players on either offense or defense make tactical decisions (Keidel, 1984).
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A football team’s tight-knit character makes it tougher to swap players from one team to another. Irv Cross, of the Philadelphia Eagles, once remarked, “An Eagles player could never make an easy transition to the Dallas Cowboys; the system and philosophies are just too different” (Keidel, 1984, p. 15). Unlike baseball, football requires intricate strategy and tightly meshed execution.
Basketball In basketball and similar games, like soccer (football everywhere but North America), hockey, and lacrosse, players perform in even closer proximity to one another than football players do. In quick, rapidly moving transitions, offense becomes defense—with the same players. Efforts of individuals are reciprocal; each player depends on the performance of others. Each may be involved with any of the others. Anyone can handle the ball or attempt to score.
Basketball is much like improvisational jazz. Teams require a high level of spontaneous, mutual adjustment. Everyone is on the move, often in an emerging pattern rather than a predetermined course. A successful basketball season depends heavily on a !owing relationship among team members who read and anticipate one another’s moves. Players who play together a long time develop a sense of what their teammates will do. A team of newcomers has trouble adjusting to individual predispositions or quirks. Unlike football, basketball has no platoons. It is wholly a harmonized group effort.
Coaches, who sit or roam the sidelines, serve as integrators. Their periodic interventions reinforce team cohesion, helping players coordinate laterally on the move. Unlike baseball teams, basketball teams cannot function as a collection of individual stars. During the 2016 basketball season, the rather dismal performance of the Los Angeles Lakers was attributed to it being a loose array of individual stars rather than a well-knit uni“ed team. Conversely, the San Antonio Spurs became one of the most consistently successful teams in professional basketball by emphasizing teamwork. According to LeBron James, that’s how the Spurs beat his team in the 2014 NBA championships: “It’s all for the team and it’s never about the individual. That’s the brand of basketball, and that’s how team basketball should be played” (Ginsburg, 2014).
Duke University’s women’s basketball success in 2000 documented the importance of group interdependence and cohesion. The team won because players could anticipate the actions of others. The individual “I” deferred to the collective “we.” Passing to a teammate was valued as highly as making the shot. Basketball is “fast, physically close, and crowded, 20 arms and legs in motion, up, down, across, in the air. The better the team, the more precise the passing into lanes that appear blocked with bodies” (Lubans, 2001, p. 1).
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DETERMINANTS OF SUCCESSFUL TEAMWORK In sports and elsewhere, structural pro”les of successful teams depend on the game—what a team is trying to do. Keidel (1984) suggests several important questions in designing an appropriate structure:
• What is the nature and degree of dealings among individuals?
• What is the spatial distribution of unit members?
• Where does authority reside?
• How are efforts integrated?
• Which word best describes the required structure: conglomerate, mechanistic, or organic?
• What sports metaphor captures the task of management: “lling out the line-up card, preparing the game plan, or in!uencing the game’s !ow?
Appropriate team structures can vary, even within the same organization. For example, a senior research manager in a pharmaceutical “rm observed a structural progression in discovering and developing a new drug: “The process moves through three distinct stages. It’s like going from baseball to football to basketball” (Keidel, 1984, p. 11).
In basic research, individual scientists work independently to develop a body of knowledge. As in baseball, individual labors are the norm. Once a promising drug is identi”ed, it passes from developmental chemists to pharmacy researchers to toxicologists. If the drug receives preliminary federal approval, it moves to clinical researchers for experimental tests. These sequential relationships are reminiscent of play sequences in football. In the “nal stage (“new drug application”), physicians, statisticians, pharmacists, pharmacologists, toxicologists, and chemists work closely and reciprocally to win “nal approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Their efforts resemble the closely linked and !owing patterns of a basketball team (Keidel, 1984).