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.
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