Look Beyond the Team: It’s About the Network
March 21, 2012 Editor 0
In most businesses, the prevailing assumption is that teams are the best way for leadership groups to go when solving a problem. Whenever possible, form a team. That’s what most people believed a decade ago, when Doug Smith and I wrote our book The Wisdom of Teams and a related article in HBR.
But today, with the ever-increasing necessity of working across organizational and geographical boundaries, and the growing complexity of daily business, more leaders at all levels are finding that it’s not always practical — or even best — to put together a team. Fortunately, we now have more options; in particular, consider the potential of focused networks, and sub-groups that can work more effectively in different modes than “real team.” For example, even when I was engaged in my earlier writing on teams, I didn’t really recognize that what looked like a team was in some cases actually a set of networks and sub-units.
What’s the difference? A team is a small group with a leader (leadership can and does shift among the members in a real team), accountable for a specific and compelling performance purpose; it typically has a beginning and an end. In contrast, a network is a larger, informal, loosely defined group of people with various types of expertise, who can weigh in to solve different types of problems. In some situations a focused network is more flexible and inclusive than a small team. For instance, in 1993, Doug Smith and I wrote about Burlington Northern Railroad, where a team of seven created a multibillion-dollar business in “piggybacking” rail services (loading truck containers onto flatbed rail cars), despite major internal resistance.
I’ve since recognized that it wasn’t just the team of seven; they were drawing on a powerful internal network of around 50 people throughout the company who weren’t formally involved, but whose informal participation allowed the team to tap a broad range of expertise and aggressively push through a new business model. The team of seven had no skilled marketers, for instance, and success would require marketing insights, which ultimately came through people outside the team.
Networks can also support and enhance sub-teaming among senior leadership groups — which increases both the capacity and flexibility of the larger group. Most executives find their day jobs pretty all-consuming, so they can seldom afford to act as full-time team members. They can, however, come together to define a purpose, and then go off and execute with help from their networks.
As the Burlington Northern example shows, the use of networks is not new; that effort took place in the early 1980s. And when the Justice department was trying to break apart Microsoft it ran into great difficulty thanks to the strength of the company’s networks. Breaking it apart would be almost like trying to separate conjoined twins — it might work, but it’s risky. What’s different today is that we have so much more power to use these networks purposefully — in conjunction with as well as in place of different kinds of teams. I didn’t truly understand the network then because it wasn’t visible. Now we have technologies that allow us to map informal networks, and set them to work for a particular purpose.
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Of course, there are many times when “good old-fashioned teams” really are the way to go. There are several types. One is the single-leader unit, with one person in charge. These work well in most large organizations where the culture is driven by individual accountability. They are also often effective in consulting firms, where you have a seasoned expert at the top and a set of inexperienced but smart junior people who can execute on a given directive. The leader knows best, and time is of the essence.
Real teams, however, require “mutual accountability” among all the members (the leadership role actually shifts among the members). They hold each other accountable, rather than being solely accountable to the senior person. They are exemplified in elite military units like the USMC and the Navy SEALs. And the best senior leadership groups will periodically function as a real team with the issue is both urgent and challenging.
Collaborating to solve global business problems has never been more urgent than it is today, and we need to be sure that we don’t overlook all the options. The narrow notion of a team overlooks the disciplined choices that different performance situations require; it also overlooks the power of a much broader, much more powerful network. In global situations, networks are increasingly important, but they do not supercede the disciplined real team option in situations where a few people with complementary skills need accomplish a clear performance purpose.
But for the most part today, you can’t really think about teams independent of their networks, sub-groups, and integrated leadership systems.
This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams.
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