By Gervase R. Bushe
Project teams often have different workers at different times. And that can create problems.
It’s tough for a team to deliver top performance when members keep coming and going. Constant turnover makes it hard to maintain team spirit—and the continuity of skills and knowledge necessary to get the job done.
But sometimes companies don’t have any choice but to keep shuffling the deck. Teams might need different workers at different stages of a project—designers at the start, for instance, and prototyping experts later on. Likewise, the team members may not all be available at the same time, or employees might constantly come and go because of layoffs or mergers.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- Are you constantly shuffling people on and off teams in your company, either out of necessity or by design?
- Do new team members take a long time to get up to speed?
- Do longstanding team members resent the extra work it takes to get newcomers trained?
- Do team members who are constantly shuffling from manager to manager complain about a lack of career oversight?
- Overall, do you find that these unstable groups aren’t performing as well as they should?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to rethink how you set up and manage your teams. You should craft team roles that take little on-the-job training, and make it as easy as possible to slot people in and out. As part of that, you should come up with formalized procedures for employees to follow, making it easier to get newcomers up to speed. Finally, find ways to motivate workers who are always moving among teams, and help them identify with the organization and its goals—such as assigning them to a manager who oversees everyone at the company with similar skills, instead of bouncing them from boss to boss.
Some managers, meanwhile, want to keep team membership unstable on purpose. They may want to rotate employees in and out of groups to give them exposure to different parts of the business, or to cut down on theft or other bad behaviors that can develop when employees work together closely for a long time and turn a blind eye to each other’s misdeeds.
So, how can companies get the most out of teams under unstable conditions? Here’s a look at the most common problems that teams with fluid membership encounter—and the best ways to solve them.
Loss of Knowledge
When workers stay in a team for a long time, they build up knowledge about the team’s mission and how to do the job. Each time a member leaves, that knowledge disappears.
The solution? Standardize team members’ roles as much as possible, so they don’t need to acquire lots of knowledge on the job.
Think of medical teams. Hospitals create roles for doctors and nurses that closely match the skills and procedures they learn in medical school. Once they’re hired, caregivers don’t need to learn lots of particulars about, say, how to handle themselves in an emergency room or deal with a particular illness.
Of course, not all organizations can expect workers to come aboard with that kind of standardized training. So, managers should consider setting up routines and procedures for workers, then training newcomers as they join the company.
Another solution: Make sure teams have some stable membership. Find individuals with lots of accumulated knowledge and keep them on teams to guide new members and help them get the hang of the job. At one enterprise-software company, for instance, the technical-support teams had high turnover, since it was an entry-level position and a gateway into more specialized jobs. But the teams had two stable roles: a leader who handled administrative functions and a “resource member” with deep expertise in the technical aspects of the team’s work, who could counsel newcomers as the need arose.
Over time, effective teams develop a common way of thinking about the job, such as how to approach the task and how to communicate with each other. But if members are always changing, it’s tough to develop and maintain that shared approach.
There are a number of possible solutions. One is to make team members’ roles as independent as possible, so they don’t need to develop those shared ways of thinking. Another approach—similar to the solution for handling the loss of knowledge—is to formalize shared ways of thinking by creating routines for employees to follow.
Along those lines, managers might create knowledge-management systems to store team information. For instance, an engineering team might keep a blog to chart a project’s progress and the roles and responsibilities of team members involved. Or human-resources managers might record the roles and duties of workers as they expand beyond existing job descriptions.
For an idea of how all this looks in practice, consider once again the tech-support teams at the enterprise-software company. First, the company took the usual larger groupings like database specialists, network specialists and programmers and narrowed those down into much smaller units like graph design, formulas and specific databases, and then built teams around these. New hires were given a three-week training course in the technical aspects of the product and the culture and values of the company. As part of that, they were trained to use a common problem-solving process, and to document each step in that process as they worked with a customer. So if a customer called back and got another team member on the phone, that person could pick up the thread of the work and service the customer seamlessly.
Workers also had access to a computerized knowledge base—with such information as technical papers, manuals, training documents, and previous solutions to problems—and were responsible for writing up entries for it each month. Another team then cleaned up, standardized and cross-referenced each contribution.
Team members who spend only a short time in the group often lack commitment to the task and to the group. Meanwhile, longstanding members may not want to compensate for newcomers’ shortcomings when their level of commitment is questionable.
The answer? Make sure each team member’s role has built-in motivation. Consider nursing teams in hospitals, where personnel typically change often in response to scheduling and other constraints.
Further reading from MIT Sloan Management Review
- Bridging Faultlines in Diverse Teams
Lynda Gratton, Andreas Voigt and Tamara J. Erickson
Project teams can fly or founder on the demographic attributes of team members and the fractures they can create.
- How to Manage Virtual Teams
Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl and Holger Ernst
Dispersed teams can actually outperform groups that are in one place. To succeed, however, virtual collaboration must be managed in specific ways.
- A Surprising Truth About Geographically Dispersed Teams
Having one member in a remote location helps teams communicate.
The older team-nursing model required each nurse to perform one specialized function for all patients in a unit, such as administering and recording all medications, or monitoring and recording all vital signs. In the newer model, the duties are divided by patient rather than function—one nurse coordinates and provides all aspects of care for a small group of patients. Overseeing patients this way gives nurses much more responsibility and satisfaction, and thus does a much better job at keeping them motivated.
What about the “free rider” problem, where team members coast along, knowing they won’t be in the group for long? The enterprise-software company dealt with this problem in technical support by making each team member’s actions highly visible. All team members sat in an open environment, in fairly close proximity, and statistics on the team and each member’s call-response volume were discussed at weekly meetings. New hires who did not quickly adapt to norms—such as taking on a certain level of calls, or seeking and giving help freely—did not last long in the organization.
Lack of Cohesion
Ever-changing membership can make it hard for workers to build a sense of identification with a team, taking away from its ability to get the job done. Our solution: Have workers identify with other people at the company who do the same job. While team members may come and go, the pool of people at a company doing one job is usually much more stable.
A good example of this happened at a large property-and-casualty insurance company that divested a big chunk of its business during the 2001 recession. The CIO decided to restructure the IT department, creating fluid teams that could staff up and down on projects—a move that ended up lowering cohesion and morale. “I’ve had five different managers in the past year, so who is looking after my career?” was a typical complaint.
The company’s solution was to create stable pools of people with similar skill sets, such as business analysis and project management, that they called practice centers. Staff members are now assigned to a practice center led by a manager who oversees people’s careers and develops identification with the organization and practice center. For instance, group members are flexibly assigned to projects as needed but as a group they participate in activities like continuing training, off-site meetings and get-togethers where they share lessons learned across projects.
Four years after the practice centers were created, the structure is well regarded inside the company and has helped develop strongly cohesive groups.
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