Design Team Dynamics

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Mel: Teams vs. Working Groups

Brought this up at our first meeting last night, but didn't do a good job of explaining it. The difference between teams and working groups is an important one that's difficult to articulate, especially since most people label working groups as "teams."

Working groups

A working group's performance is a function of what its members do as individuals. There is no sum > sigma(parts). You take the work, divide it into people-hours, and portion it off. The metric for how well a working group member performs is how well they complete the person-hours of work apportioned them. Incidentally, this sounds an awful lot like the capitalist labor society Marx criticizes in the Communist Manifesto; people are hot-swappable work-hour units with different skill sets.
Since individual accountability is a convenient thing to have, most organizations (especially large ones) use working groups, and they use them well. Most committees, councils, task forces, and "teams" are really working groups. Most Olin projects, since they're relatively short-term (0.5-1 semester), are really working groups, and I'd generalize this to most short-term technical project groups in general, though I can't back that up. These groups are usually called teams, since "team" sounds good, but saying something's a team doesn't automatically make it one.
Here's what the powerpoint presentation says about working groups:
  • They share information, perspectives, and insights.
  • They make decisions that help individuals do their jobs better.
  • They reinforce individual performance standards (the work-hour units metric I mentioned earlier).
  • They focus on individual goals and accountabilities; members do not take responsibility for results other than their own.
  • They do not develop incremental performance contributions requiring the combined work of two or more members (sum !> sigma(parts)).
Working groups are not inferior to teams! Sometimes they're the quickest, most effective way to get the job done; on small-scale, short-term projects, they almost definitely are. At Olin, we learn how to serve on working groups with extreme efficiency.


Let's begin with the powerpoint's bullet list again. Now, teams:
  • They require both individual and mutual accountability.
  • They rely on more than group discussion, debate, and decision.
  • They rely on sharing information and best-practice performance standards.
This begs the question of what they do rely on. Gimme a second here.
  • They produce work through the joint contributions of their members.
  • They make possible performance levels greater than the sum of the individual bests of team members.
  • Their performance includes both individual results and "collective work products" (what 2+ members must work on together - it reflects the real joint contributions of team members, not just sums of individual work-units).
Teams rely on interdependence and this sum >> sigma(parts) phenomena. My own theory is that teams are effective at getting their entire group into a collective flow state. Since the flow state is naturally the most productive mode of any individual person, having a way to keep all their individuals in flow state is to have a way of getting sum = sigma(parts) at minimum. But teams go further by enabling one individual's flow state to merge with another's - and this is where the sum-is-greater-than-the-parts phenomena comes in.
The team phenomena is most obvious in athletics and music. Good sports groups are teams; good orchestras, choirs, and drum troupes are teams. They can't afford to be otherwise.
Teams don't have to be working on the same project. Whereas working groups congregate around a job at hand and dissolve when the job is finished, teams endure past the completion of an assignment.
Teams have 10-year reunions. Working groups reconvene to complete another task.

A comparison

The powerpoint had a nice chart that showed some key differences succintly. I don't think it's complete, but it comes pretty close. (The formatting here may be wonky; sorry about that. It's standard html, but I can't get Blogger to like it.)

Working group Team
Strong, clearly focused leader Shared leadership roles
Individual accountabilityIndividual and mutual accountability
Purpose is the same as the broader organizational missionPurpose that the team itself delivers
Individual work productsCollective work products
Runs efficient meetingsEncourages open-ended discussion and active problem-solving meetings
Measures its effectiveness indirectly by its influence on others (such as financial performance)Measures performance directly by assessing collective work products
Discusses, decides, and delegatesDiscusses, decides, and does real work together

Teams are illogical. They shouldn't work; they do things inefficiently on account of the overhead it takes to transform a working group (and they all start out as working groups) into a team, but once that point is passed, their performance rate skyrockets.

I'd also like to point out that Apollo Groups (groups made from the highest-performing individuals) are ineffective when you think they'd be completely great - this is a subtle corollary of the nature of team vs. working group dynamics and performances.


Powerpoint presentation on teams

I've had several discussions with different individuals on this topic, but I believe it was Mark Penner who first showed me the article (from his New Ventures class) that first got me thinking about it. I have no idea what article it was, where it was from, or where it went, though - if someone from the class knows what I'm talking about, I'd like to find that article again.


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