I sat down with Dr. Brandi Pearce, Haas’ Lecturer and Director of Team Performance and Research to talk about the benefits and drawbacks of collaborating in teams, the team lifecycle, and what elements contribute to team effectiveness. This fall Pearce is launching the 5th year of Teams@Haas – an experiential curriculum in the MBA program designed to support student learning as teams work on large-scale innovation projects. She has also offered Haas staff a “Collaborating Within and Across Teams” workshop based on the same curriculum. We had an inspiring conversation about teamwork and collaboration at Cafe Strada, which is a collaboration zone of its own!
There have been several articles in the news lately about teams, team performance, the ideal composition of teams and more. The first question that comes to mind is why is teamwork so important?
Much of the work done in organizations today is done in teams, however, there is great variability in the effectiveness of teams, which can have significant implications for an organization’s competitive advantage; there are times when we’re working in a group and we’re just sharing or receiving information. Collaboration in teams is distinct because it shifts the focus of what you’re trying to accomplish, from sharing information, to integrating knowledge with the goal of producing some type of output (a service, a product, etc.). As a collaborative team, you are working together to integrate ideas and to leverage the different ways in which people perceive a problem, the different kinds of expertise they bring to the table, and in many cases the different backgrounds, demographic attributes, and cultures that provide different ways of perceiving the world that can contribute to new ways of thinking about the potential solution.
What are some benefits of working in teams?
Collaboration in teams can be valuable when we’re approaching complex problems that we can’t really solve independently. It can also be a valuable way of conserving resources; it’s a way to leverage expertise that perhaps you don’t have within your own organization or unit. Finally, collective work can enable us to leverage a richer source of information and to build upon ideas and create synergies that can result in solutions that we might not achieve alone.
Are there any drawbacks?
Yes! It’s always important to ask ourselves why we are doing this work in a team. Is this work best done as a group? There are certain kinds of tasks that are really best done by an individual. For example for me writing is a solo task. Eventually, I might collaborate with others, but it’s typically something that I do independently first and then seek other’s input or perspectives (in a more serialized vs. integrative fashion). Collaboration in teams requires coordination, which takes time, another important resource. And so if what we’re doing isn’t benefiting from knowledge integration, then putting a team of people on it may actually increase the amount of time it takes to accomplish the task.
The other liability of collaborating in teams is that when we bring together people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, we also increase the potential for divergent thought, which can be extremely valuable, but can also lead to misunderstandings, tension and biases. When we think about teams we need to balance the fact that we have this tremendous opportunity, but we also need to put ‘scaffolds’ in place to support continuous alignment and mutual understanding of team members.
It sounds like teaming requires coordination, alignment, practice, and you mentioned ‘scaffolds’. Can you explain what you mean by scaffolds?
Traditionally in organizations, hierarchy is one of the primary vehicles through which work is coordinated. Hierarchy can be powerful, as it helps us align our goals, understand what and how to coordinate, and creates joint incentives. As organizations become more dynamic, however, teams often sit outside the hierarchy (i.e. a project team in which members work across units). In this case, there is no clear leader or formal decision maker. That means we really need to think about how to put in place the capabilities, tools, and mindset that can serve as a proxy for hierarchy, to support the team in co-creating their goals, how they want to coordinate the project, and the critical norms and processes needed to support their collective activities. Much like the scaffolds that support a building as it is being constructed, these tools, capabilities, and mindset also are designed to be flexible to meet the complex nature of the work as well as the fluid and multiplex structure of the team.
What are the major phases in a team journey?
Teams, like people, have life-cycles. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And as teams become more complex and dynamic the lifecycle of the team in many ways is iterating and building on itself.
At the beginning of the lifecycle it’s important to develop a Collaborative Plan (which is our initial scaffold) by engaging in collective discussion to help your team align on:
- 1) Goals – what are we trying to achieve?
- 2) Knowledge coordination – what roles do we need; how are we going to make decisions; how are we going to manage our time?
- 3) What kind of climate are we going to develop that will support our ability to leverage our differences while mitigating the potential risks that can accompany diversity?
Unlike a contract that’s set in stone and everyone has to follow that plan exactly from beginning to end, a Collaborative Plan is a starting point, and reflexivity is the strategy through which we adapt and adjust our ways of working collectively over the course of the team lifecycle.
A critical juncture is at the mid-point where you have a check-in and reflect not just on what we do but also on how we work together. Ideally that takes place after some major deliverable or some major point in time when you have had enough experience working together but not so much experience that negative norms can get set. You want to be a in a place where you’re still evolving as a team so there is opportunity to adjust and adapt and so that you can integrate reflexivity into the team processes on an ongoing basis.
We talked about the beginning and midpoint of the team lifecycle. How do teams come to closure?
Teams are knowledge carriers and, therefore, how we end a team is an important source of how knowledge gets transferred in the organization. Often teams have knowledge debriefs about the outcome, but very rarely debrief their team dynamics. As we move to a knowledge-based ecosystem, this is an important part of our learning. We really need to encourage organizational members to be curious about the following questions: “How do I show up in teams?” and “What about this team worked well or didn’t work very well and why?”
Are teams more effective when team members are open to bringing their authentic self to work and self-disclosing key elements of their personal life? In other words, do we need to be best friends with our team members to ensure team effectiveness?
There has been a lot of discussion of this point since the article in the New York Times about Google and its team. Specifically, I’ve been asked frequently, do we have to be best friends and know everything about each other to work effectively in a group? While self-disclosure can make us feel closer to another, the evidence suggests that what appears to be particularly critical is how we process social information in a team. A wonderful study by Anita Woolley and her colleagues looked at what drives team performance in a wide range of tasks and what they discovered is that there are two factors that contribute to team performance. One is the degree of social sensitivity in the team, which is really our ability to read non-verbal social cues and how those relate to the social environment. It’s not necessarily that you and I are best friends, but rather that I am able to read your social cues, for example I see you bowing your head and pulling inward. I notice your body language and take a moment to inquire or pause to better understand what might be happening for you. Another critical contributor of team performance is our ability to balance communication in the team over time. In other words, over time everybody’s perspective is heard. In a knowledge-based team this is critical, as it is the diverse perspectives that serve as the critical resource for the group. In addition to those two factors, an important driver of learning and innovation in teams is psychological safety, as defined by Amy Edmonson, which is the degree to which people feel safe taking interpersonal risks. In a current project I am working on with colleagues at Stanford, we have found some preliminary evidence that one of the underlying mechanisms that supports the relationship between psychological safety and creative self-efficacy across cultures is reflexivity. If we think about this, it makes sense, the more a team engages in reflexivity, the more they have a shared understanding of the task and others, which implicitly creates shared understanding, familiarity, and trust supporting one’s openness to take more interpersonal risks.
Do you have any last piece of advice for anyone who is launching a team?
The importance of reflexivity throughout the team lifecycle – cultivating a collaborative environment in which reflecting, giving, and receiving feedback on an ongoing basis is seen as a mechanism for reflection and learning. Reflexivity is absolutely critical for teams because otherwise too much of your knowledge about the task and too much of your knowledge about the social context will remain underneath the surface of the water.