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Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 11.10.24 amFrom the desk of Nick Mills

Teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly trained specialists are becoming increasingly crucial to the success of challenging projects. The paradox, however, is that those same characteristics make it difficult for teams to get anything done.

As Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, puts it: “The qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success.”

In joint research undertaken between the Concours Institute and the Cooperative Research Project of London Business School, Gratton looked at “the levers executives could pull to improve team performance and innovation in collaborative tasks” by examining a number of factors. For example, the study looked at the general culture of the company, network-building practices, HR practices and procedures, the design of the task, the leadership of the team, and the behaviour of executives, to name a few.

The question they asked is: How can executives strengthen an organisation’s ability to perform complex collaborative tasks — to maximize the effectiveness of large, diverse teams, while minimizing the disadvantages posed by their structure and composition?

Gratton and her team found that there are eight factors that lead to success:

1. Investing in signature relationship practices. Executives can encourage collaborative behavior by making highly visible investments — in facilities with open floor plans to foster communication, for example—that demonstrate their commitment to collaboration.

2. Modelling collaborative behaviour. At companies where the senior executives demonstrate highly collaborative behavior themselves, teams collaborate well.

3. Creating a ‘gift culture.’ Mentoring and coaching — especially on an informal basis — help people build the networks they need to work across corporate boundaries.

4. Ensuring the requisite skills. Human resources departments that teach employees how to build relationships, communicate well, and resolve conflicts creatively can have a major impact on team collaboration.

5. Supporting a strong sense of community. When people feel a sense of community, they are more comfortable reaching out to others and more likely to share knowledge.

6. Assigning team leaders that are both task- and relationship-oriented. The debate has traditionally focused on whether a task or a relationship orientation creates better leadership, but in fact both are key to successfully leading a team. Typically, leaning more heavily on a task orientation at the outset of a project and shifting toward a relationship orientation once the work is in full swing works best.

7. Building on heritage relationships. When too many team members are strangers, people may be reluctant to share knowledge. The best practice is to put at least a few people who know one another on the team.

8. Understanding role clarity and task ambiguity. Cooperation increases when the roles of individual team members are sharply defined yet the team is given latitude on how to achieve the task.

By attending to these factors, it’s possible to assemble the breadth of expertise needed to solve the complex business problems we face today and avoid the issues that can accompany it.