The "Creative" Benefits of Multiple Teams

The "Creative" Benefits of Multiple Teams

Business April 07, 2014 / By David Burkus
The "Creative" Benefits of Multiple Teams

Serving on multiple teams can distract our focus, but it might be worth it.

Creative work is teamwork. That much is all but indisputable for modern organizations. The age of the lonely artist working in solitude is all but gone, if it ever existed in the first place. As we push to solve bigger and bigger challenges, we seem to inevitably need more and more people to solve them. Even our school systems are being reworked to emphasize working as a team. When it comes to organizational life, however, few people even find themselves a member of one team. Sure there’s your department, but there’s also the cross-functional team, the special task force, and the party planning committee. Many have found that serving as members of multiple teams at the same time is their new organizational reality. This presents a challenge for both team members and leaders: how do we allocate time to all those teams and how do leaders find the right people from the right team?

Fortunately, some recent research might offer insights for team leaders. In a study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, professors Jonathan Cummings and Martine Haas studied the inner workings of teams at a large, multination corporation (the company remains anonymous in order to ensure accurate responses from participants). The company’s employees answered a battery of survey questions around individual characteristics, team behaviors, and time allocation. The professors then connected that data to the company’s team performance measures.

When they analyzed the data, the professors found that performance was higher for teams whose members committed more of their time to the team. No surprise there. Surprisingly, team performance was higher for teams whose members also served on a large number of teams at the same time. How could this be? How could high performing teams need a large commitment of time from team members AND need their members to serve on multiple teams?

One explanation is that highly skilled individuals were more likely to serve on multiple teams. Those high performers may not have been the ones allocating lots of time to the team. Instead, they bring the benefits of expanded networks, additional knowledge, and greater access to resources…even if they don’t bring the benefit of allocated time. It’s worth noting there is an exception: teams whose members are involved in lots of other teams and are geographically dispersed don’t see a performance advantage. Absence might make the heart grow fonder, but it doesn’t make for better performing teammates.

If you’re leading a team or serving on one, the study has implications for you. To the best of your ability, try to allocate your time on teams who need your specific skill sets. If another team has a more important project, but has an equally qualified member, that should be your indication that you can spend time elsewhere. Likewise, if you’re recruiting new members to your team, make sure you know whether they bring an ability to allocate enough time, or enough connections, or enough resources to make it worth their minimal commitment. In an environment where everyone is working on teams, it’s the teams who build their roster intentionally that start with the advantage.

comments powered by Disqus