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No team — or team leader—is an island
New research sheds light on how today's best leaders shape networked ecosystems for team success
Almost from the start of the Industrialized Age, the concept of a team has been a part of the working world. It is safe to say that in large organizations today, virtually all managers and employees participate in some sort of team structure, either as leaders or members. Team leadership, consequently, is one of the most common topics in business research today. However, the sheer amount written about teams and team leadership means that researchers sometimes struggle to produce insights that are interesting in themselves and relevant to practitioners. However, a new paper from Inga Carboni (William & Mary), Rob Cross (Babson College), and Amy C. Edmondson (Harvard) looks at teams from a different perspective, and this shift in perspective produces new insights that are worth considering.
The basic hypothesis of the paper is that while the structure of work has dramaticall changed— and continues to change— the management of work has not. Specifically, most teams are managed as if they were a small group of people working together towards a common goal. The reality, the authors, argue is quite different:
In most organizations today, however, this type of small, dedicated team is the exception rather than the rule. Teams are no longer lone islands of activity. Instead, individuals, particularly at more senior levels, routinely lead teams of 20, 50, or even several hundred people across multiple continents and time zones. Teams are not only bigger, but they are also more permeable, more fluid, and more pervasive than in the past, and working on many teams simultaneously is increasingly common. Indeed, senior-level managers might work on as many as 25 project teams in a given week.
For the authors, the traditional focus of team leadership research has ignored this changed reality and has not updated the understanding of the new concepts and techniques needed to manage teams in today's employee networks. As the authors note, "in a workplace in which no team is an island, managers are still using management techniques designed for bounded, dedicated teams with stable membership." Because individual employees can be part of multiple teams and because the shape of those teams can change constantly, team leadership needs to change also from a set of static practices to a collection of dynamic methods that adapt as teams evolve.
In order to understand how the best team leadership models are evolving in today's networked organizations, the authors interviewed approximately 100 successful team leaders in 20 organizations. The goal of the interviews was to uncover and understand the new practices used by this set of successful team leaders. Given the fluid nature of teams in today's complex organizations, the authors "sought to describe alternatives to the traditional practices that work for bounded—that is, island—teams."
The organizations in their study included a wide range of industries, e.g., financial services, high tech, consulting, manufacturing, food services, and hospitality. The companies ranged in size from several thousand to hundreds of thousands of people. The teams analyzed worked in a variety of functions, including sales, research and development (R&D), human resources, production, and public relations. The authors specifically selected interviewees "who were identified by their senior leaders as having successfully led multiple teams over at least ten years," because the researchers "wanted to create a typology of practices-in-use rather than test causality."
As the interviews began to suggest new ideas, the authors presented those concepts to the interviewees as well as to "small groups of senior business leaders at roughly two dozen other organizations to validate and refine our understanding.” An important point is that interviews occurred both before and after the onset of the pandemic, allowing the authors to "capture in real-time the adaptations that leaders were making to implement their practices remotely."
From their research, the authors discovered a variety of techniques these successful team leaders use to manage their teams' networked ecosystems. I have synthesized their extensive documentation and analysis into five general techniques below:
Technique 1: Build the connections
Rather than building external relationships as opportunities arose, successful team leaders define the purpose of any missing external connection and then acquire it systematically. Importantly, the best leaders divide this task among team members, aligning networking responsibilities with team member profiles. As the authors explain: "As long as the purpose is clear, any member of the team can initiate and nurture the relationships that bring value into the team"—indeed, this distributive approach "further increases the efficiency of the team's ecosystem management."
Technique 2: Shape the work
The leaders the authors interviewed are deliberate in shaping the nature of their team's work. Most team models assume that work is assigned to teams and that they have little say in shaping what they do. The best team leaders, however, devote energy to shaping their team's work before it ever gets to the team. For example, "one senior sales leader in the life sciences industry described engaging key financial sponsors early in the funding process to better align the work that comes into his unit with the aspirations of his employees." He shaped his team's work not with a slide deck but with a single slide that framed serious conversations about his team's future work and approach.
Technique 3: Find the benchmarks
As an experienced team leader knows, it is easy for teams to insulate themselves from outsiders, especially if the team is struggling. The best team leaders, however, use their designed networks to constantly seek and evaluate external practices that might be of use to their teams. As the authors note: "the leaders we interviewed identified and brought best practices into their teams through their or their team members' connections with people who were doing similar work in different geographies, functions, or organizations." In other words, the best team leaders cast a wide net for good practices and then carefully compare them with their own team's needs. They do this not just to find new ideas to improve performance but also to seek out potential collaborators and ideas for future projects.
Technique 4: Expand the support system
It is rare that a team succeeds without external support of one kind or another. The support may be a CEO championing their work or a competent steering committee that removes obstacles to progress. Whatever the form, teams depend on outside help, and the best team leaders devote serious effort to designing and maintaining their team's support ecosystem. This outreach takes various forms, each with its own specific value. Formal decision-makers are an obvious part of this outreach. However, the authors found that good team leaders also invest a great deal of time with two groups that less-effective leaders sometimes overlook.
The first group is positive influencers—people whose perspectives have a big impact on the future of success of their team's work. Counter-intuitively, the leaders interviewed "tended not to focus their efforts on painting a picture of the worst-case scenario and what would go wrong if the team did not receive adequate resources." Instead, "they or other members of their team drew decision-makers and influencers into an exciting vision of what the team could achieve, given the right support."
The second group is negative influencers, i.e., people who may hold negative opinions of the team's work. Negative influencers often "were colleagues with different priorities driven by functional commitments, incentives, or personal values in their work." The best leaders either engage with these individuals directly or assign that task to a team member. The important goal is to understand the source and potential impact of negative opinions and to try, as much as possible, to turn negative perspectives into positive ones, at best, or neutral ones, at worst. As one interviewee stated:
I always ask my team whom they should be talking with about a particular initiative. Their voice will go up, or they'll give some indication as to who their favorites are or whom they're closer to. And so I know, "Okay, those are our influencers for the resister."
Technique 5: Put in the time
One of the more surprising findings of the study was the amount of time that successful leaders put into their network-focused efforts. The techniques noted above were not left to chance; on the contrary, the time needed to execute them well was carefully calculated into management strategy. In fact, when the authors asked the interviewees about the amount of time that they spent managing external relationships, "the team leaders frequently mentioned at least 50%—sometimes 60%—of their time, far beyond what most team models indicate." This high percentage gave the authors cause for a wider conclusion:
Reflecting back on the many conversations we've had with successful team leaders over the years, with our new findings in hand, we now realize how many of the leaders who seemed focused on team-building were actually supporting their team members' efforts to build the external relationships that brought value into the team.
Taking a step back from the specific techniques discussed above, the authors suggest that the way we think about team leadership needs to evolve in two fundamental ways in order to reflect todays' working environments—especially in our hybrid present.
The first evolution required is to reconceptualize teams as working groups embedded within larger organizational networks. Doing so, the authors believe, "highlights the permeability of team boundaries and emphasizes the structure and quality of interpersonal relationships and their impact on work." Given that one person might be on a dozen or more overlapping teams, each with its own set of stakeholders, team leaders should focus on managing not just the work of the group but also the "relationships among team members and between team members and external interests."
The second evolution required is for managers to devote as much time and attention to the ecosystem that surrounds their team as to the team itself. In the traditional model, a team leader's role was generally bounded by the team members and a team's scope of work. Managers often invested time in outsiders—e.g., stakeholders, customers, partners, opinion leaders, and decision makers, etc.— with undefined hopes of finding value in some way. For the authors, however, in today's highly networked organization, team leaders need to systematically manage their external connections, a strategic imperative in which team members should also play a crucial role.
"No team is an island," is the author's fundamental point, and "high-performing leaders in today's collaboratively complex organizations recognize that managing their teams' ecosystems is essential work." Today's best team leaders use their knowledge of the networked ecosystem to cultivate the right external relationships, bring value into their teams, and drive them toward high performance.
Reflecting on the research, I remember that in every project that I managed successfully at least half of my time was spent exactly as the authors describe. Whether meeting with project sponsors, positive or negative influencers, or external partners, I saw the creation and maintenance of our external ecosystem as a critical part of my job. Indeed, I used to say—only half in jest— that on any big project a major decision has a half-life of two weeks before some force, benign or destructive, starts to undermine the consensus. I was able to focus on the ecosystem for two important reasons, however. One is the nature of how consulting firms operate, which has always been in decentralized hybrid physical/virtual working models. The other is that I was fortunate to have talented team members, the sine qua non of the approach the authors document in their study. No team is an island, and neither is any team leader.
In closing their paper, the authors observe that the pandemic, financial uncertainty, and social unrest are "leaving people more dispersed and more in need of leadership than ever." Relying on old management models, "unaware that the structures and needs of teams and organizations have changed in fundamental ways, is a recipe for failure." This thought-provoking paper not only provides managers with specific and actionable ideas for improving their perspectives and practices, it also suggests new directions for researchers seeking to define and enhance what makes teams work at the highest level.
Carboni I, Cross R, Edmondson AC. No Team is an Island: How Leaders Shape Networked Ecosystems for Team Success. California Management Review. September 2021. doi:10.1177/00081256211041784