When we create teams in the workplace, we often find ourselves frustrated with the results. We anticipate that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts, yet the team does not always achieve this potential. When a team falters, we should examine several potential causes: bad leadership, poor team design, flawed team process, and a climate in which people do not feel safe speaking up. Leadership, design, process, and climate are key enablers of high team performance.
Let’s take a look at team design for a moment. What are some of the classic design mistakes that organizations make?
1. Leaders build teams that are too big. In a story in the Wall Street Journal, Apple engineer Greg Christie describes how the original iPhone development team was “shockingly small.” In this great blog post by Stanford Professor Bob Sutton, he explains that the optimal number for most teams is seven, plus or minus two. In my latest book, I talk about Intuit’s “two-pizza” rule – build teams that can be fed with two large pizzas. The “two-pizza” rule fits pretty nicely with Sutton’s guidance, which is based on research by scholars such as the late Richard Hackman.
2. Leaders create teams with “invisible” homogeneity. Many leaders focus on gender, racial, and ethnic diversity when building a team. Can a “diverse” team along these dimensions still be considered quite homogenous along other important dimensions? YES! Many teams with “visible” diversity have “invisible” homogeneity. In other words, many members come from the same educational institutions, have the same functional backgrounds, and have worked in the same company or industry for years. Homogeneity along these teams mean that the team members think alike in many ways and do not bring fresh alternative perspectives to the table.
3. Leaders build teams in which members do not have a clear commitment to making the team’s work a high priority. In many cases, people serve on multiple committees or task forces at work. They are serving on a team in their “spare time” at work. The team’s task is not a focus of their attention. If too many members fall into this camp, the result will not be successful. Leaders need to think carefully about how team members are selected, as well as how many teams a particular individual is serving on simultaneously. In an odd way, the star performers in an organization can become the problem here. They are often assigned to many teams and task forces because they are so smart and effective. However, they can easily find themselves spread too thin. As such, they become a liability to certain teams on which they serve, because they cannot provide the group enough attention and effort.