Thinking networks for better teams

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by Tony Fischer Photography

HBR insight center did a great coverage this week on the subject of “the secret of great teams”. And I was particularly drawn by this article “Look beyond the team: it’s about the network“, by Jon R. Katzenbach, as it reflects what most people overlook: It’s about the informal structure!

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.

Informal structure is a black box to most people. Yet if you “put an organizational chart (the formal structure) in front of most any employee and they will tell you the boxes and lines only partially reflect the way work gets done in their organization”1. We somehow know that a hidden structure exists, yet we are often unable to tangibly comprehend it. Unless we see the organization through a network-aware lens, we will always have an incomplete version of the truth. A team should be seen as a network embedded in other networks. Not only that, we need to understand that the texture of these embedding networks can affect the performance of the team. Research2 has actually found that most productive teams were particularly characterized by having had more diverse information contacts outside the project team than did the less productive teams.

I’m not saying that we must toss away all what we’ve learned so far about teams. All I’m saying is that we have to be aware by now that “Network Analysis” techniques should be an essential part of every manager’s toolbox to be used when needs be

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.

1. Robert Cross: “Making Invisible Work Visible: Using Social Network Analysis  to Support Strategic Collaboration”

2. Michael E. D. Koenig: “Gatekeepers, Boundary Spanners, and Social Network Analysis Creating the Project Team”

Related articles: Power of networked teams

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