Tag Archives: Hackman

Can you have too much talent in a team?

people_puzzle_1600_wht_4253Well, yes, according to Professor of organisational behaviour Roderick Swaab at the French business school INSEAD (reported recently in the Sunday Times).

Apparently having too much talent can be as bad as not having enough in terms of team performance.

His research suggests that once 68% of your team is made up of highly talented people,  that becomes the point where adding more gives you less in terms of performance.

However this is based on research into elite sports teams and in football and basketball the highly skilled are known to pass the ball less and not provide as many assists to team mates as they would rather go for glory themselves.

Does that apply to business? Despite Swaab’s assertion that it does I have my doubts. Perhaps if you are  competing in an investment bank, the example he quotes,  you might be less inclined to share information and help colleagues, but that is hardly typical of most business environments.

The problem seems to be that very talented people are used to being recognised for their individual talent and  not for being team players.

Swaab says “hiring these people does add value but with potential costs”. Hiring big egos can easily lead to personality clashes and conflict over status when they all want to be recognised as the best.

Of course if you are working in a group that is not strictly a team (in Hackman‘s definition i.e. the members are not dependent on each other) then it shouldn’t matter how many talented people you have, in fact the more the merrier to get best results overall.

So it’s probably” horses for courses”. For independent workers in a group there’s no reason to assume a tipping point where performance drops off. In a real team you need the right mix of talent and diversity (and the right supporting conditions a la Hackman’s model).

Swaab acknowledges that the level of interdependence is important and it might also mean recruiting fewer star players to ensure team cohesiveness – or rewarding the team as a whole rather than individuals.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is leadership. It might be more of a challenge to manage a team brimming with talent but would a good leader rather have a team of mediocre people?

 

 

 

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Intact teams perform better

teamwork_pass_the_puzzle_500_wht_7889

If any of you are familiar with the late Richard Hackman‘s work on teams you will know that generally speaking the longer teams work together the better they get.

Harvard Professor Robert Huckman and his colleague Bradley Staats from the University of North Carolina have also been researching teams across a range of organisations: military, corporate, healthcare and consultancy.

They found that too often managers liked to shake teams up to keep them fresh. Hackman’s found that the one exception where this can work is in R& D work where adding new members to a team, even by adding less experienced members, keeps things fresh as they ask questions no-one else does.

Basically there is a learning curve for teams just like individuals. they generally do better as they become more familiar with each other.

Research with Oxford University professor David Upton on over 1,000 projects involving over 11,000 staff in a Bangalore-based software services firm found that:

  • when familiarity increased by 50%
  • defects decreased by 19%
  • deviations from budget decreased by 30%
  • performance increased by 10% as judged by clients

The message is that managers should try and keep teams together and encourage familiarity between employees so that collaboration is easier.

Research from non-business areas shows that:

  • Leaders of Special Ops teams such as Navy Seals try to keep the teams intact as they believe it helps them cope with dynamic environments
  • In Pro basketball teams familiarity reduces bad passes but teams with too much familiarity committed more errors – perhaps because opponents could predict their moves.
  • In aviation 73% of commercial aviation accidents occur on a crew’s first day of flying together. NASA found that fatigued but familiar crews made only half as many errors as rested but unfamiliar crews.
  • The performance of surgeons who work at multiple hospitals varies from facility to facility – perhaps because of differing degrees of familiarity with the OR teams at different locations.

Main sources: HBR September 2013 & Richard Hackman

Teams and Diversity – not so simple

colored_puzzle_connection_1600_wht_9893Current thinking is that diversity is a good thing.

Diversity is claimed to increase creativity and the quality of work and there are several examples of where this has proved to be true.

However a review of research over 50 years (described by Elizabeth Mannix and Margaret A Neale at Cornell and Stanford universities respectively) shows it’s not all good news.

More worryingly researchers at MIT, Harvard, and other institutions found it was difficult to support a business case for diversity in terms of financial RoI.

Mannix and Neale define diversity as; “any personal attribute that someone else may use to detect individual differences”.

How and why a company diversifies is critical. Without proper management or worker training diversity can damage performance.

The ways managers recognise diversity e.g. by race, age, gender, or ethnicity, can have negative effects on collaboration and affect group performance, commitment, and satisfaction negatively, perhaps because they trigger preconceived biases and stereotypes.

Racial diversity, for example, was found to damage team processes. On the other hand less obvious, underlying differences such as functional background, education, or personality, tended to improve team performance as long as it was managed effectively.

Earlier research ( Jehn, Northcraft & Neale, 1999) differentiated between social category diversity such as age and sex; informational diversity such as education and functional role; and value diversity as measured by differences in goals and values.

With social category diversity heterogeneity positively influenced group member morale; differences in informational diversity increased task conflict i.e. differences of opinions, which enhanced group performance; and values diversity decreased individual satisfaction and commitment to the group.

Other research (by Pelled, Xin & Eisenhardt, 1999) found that whether or not diversity was job-related was important. Diversity in functional roles and background beneficially intensified task conflict which improved cognitive performance whereas racial diversity, which is highly visible but not related to the job, boosted affective conflict ie it increased interpersonal tension and emotional conflict and depressed group performance.

Age diversity lowered affective conflict but gender diversity didn’t seem to make any difference either way to group performance. The longer groups worked together the less the emotional conflict. This is in line with Hackman’s work on teams.

Another interesting finding is that university department’s with high proportions of women don’t necessarily welcome more of them. Increasing the proportion of women made it a more negative environment for them.  This might be explained by  the Queen Bee phenomenon.

Research, admittedly 30 years ago, suggested that men were happiest in a male or female dominated settings but not where there was gender balance that led to lower self-esteem and depression. It’s hard to believe that is still the case although the same research showed the women preferred either gender equity or male-dominated work-places. That may still  be the case as most women say they prefer a male boss.

More recent research suggests that adding women to a team can make it collectively smarter (unless they are given feedback in a group setting) but adding women to boards doesn’t necessarily make the company more successful – it depends on their experience and competence, as evidenced by high performing NHS boards.

So what can managers do to harness the talents of a diverse workforce more effectively?

As the research shows just having a group of superficially diverse people i.e. easily identifiable by race, gender, or age, doesn’t work, perhaps because these factors are not job relevant or because of stereotyping.

Clearly picking the right people for the team regardless of their social categories is important. Then having functional or educational diversity and rites or rituals, common values and goals helps. As does the culture and any training (although diversity training doesn’t work).

Information needs to be kept flowing and the influence of minority members enhanced (giving them a voice as the corporate anthropologists at a recent Global Leadership conference would say).

Exploratory team tasks such as fact-finding and research are better served by heterogenous groups, whereas exploitation of knowledge to accomplish a task is best served by an homogenous group. Unless there is a matrix/project management type structure in place this is difficult for a manager to achieve with a fixed team.

Another disappointing finding about teams is that when making decisions they focus on shared information rather than the information that hasn’t been shared. But the better connected the team members are the more likely they are to risk sharing their unique information.

Values and goals diversity was mentioned earlier and there is evidence that having superordinate goals and shared values can overcome many of the differences in a diverse multi-national group especially when the shared values are collectivistic rather than personal.

One key finding is that minority views need to be heard as these views can enhance creativity and problem-solving ability in the team. So the manager needs to create a tolerant environment with an emphasis on interdependency to reach cooperative goals that recognise the minority viewpoint. In practice many organisations weed out mavericks or people managers might consider difficult and prefer to clone what they already have. HR people should know better!

Based on “Diversity at Work” by Elizabeth Mannix & Margaret E Neale in Scientific American Mind August/September 2012

Is Team GB really a team?

It may be a marketer’s dream but are the 541 diverse athletes who comprise Team GB in any sense a real team?

Harvard Professor J Richard Hackman has studied teams in a wide range of settings and is something of a guru when it comes to effective teams.

From his research he has identified not causes but  core conditions for effective teams;

1. The team must be a real team, not just a group of people doing the same thing (what he calls a co-acting group)

2. The team must have a compelling direction for its work

3. It must have an enabling structure that facilitates rather than impedes teamwork

In addition to the three core conditions there are two supporting conditions viz a supportive organisational context and sufficient support for the development of team members.

Some key questions to ask of team members are:

Yes No
Are you dependent on each other?
Do you know who is in the team and who isn’t?
Do you know how much authority you have?
Do you have a stable team?
Are you energised by your team’s vision?
Does you team have a sense of direction?
Do you feel engaged by your team?
Do you see your work as meaningful?
Do you feel personally responsible for work outcomes?
Do you receive trustworthy knowledge of the results of your efforts ie feedback?
Does your team operate within a supportive organisational context?
Does it have available ample & expert support and coaching in teamwork?

Clearly you can answer YES to several of these questions.

However whether or not these elite athletes have the same vision as the British Olympic body is questionable.

Usually elite athletes such as these focus on their own performances (Bradley Wiggins being an honourable exception last week) but that means that they should feel responsible for their outcomes.

It’s doubtful if they are that dependent on each other and would they know every one of the 550 athletes in Team GB?

They are certainly being provided with coaching and other technical support and regularly receive feedback.

So a lot of boxes are being ticked and while you can’t make exact comparisons with business teams (about which there are lots of mistaken beliefs).

It’s also a big team, bigger than the majority of companies in the UK, and more like a regiment or a community. However even looking at it as a community it far exceeds Dunbar’s number of 150 ie  “the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained”.

The team is also spread across different venues so is like a virtual team in that respect.

So Team GB is probably less like a real team and more like a co-acting group.

Whatever they are, let’s hope they can deliver the results.

Update 27 July:

It’s been announced that not all the athletes in Team GB will be attending the opening ceremony. BOA chief executive Andy Hunt said that around half of the 541 athletes attending the ceremony would be a “reasonable” outcome.

None of the tennis, swimming or athletics squads will be there, while members of the eventing, sailing and road race cycling teams are also set to miss out. Others, such as triathlete Alistair Brownlee, will be training in other parts of the country and overseas.

They’ve been told to put performance first which means getting a good night’s sleep. So whose idea was it to have the opening ceremony start at 2100? Did sponsorship or TV rights have anything to do with it?

In terms of the team spirit I would have thought that if the athletes felt part of Team GB they would want to be there together.