Culture & Competency

What's the Best Group Design for Highly-Effective Projects?

My earliest memory of flying is from 1978, when my family flew from Zambia to New Zealand (we definitely transited through Singapore, but where else we went I don’t recall). The plane was a British Airways 747, and as a 6 year old kid, it was amazing. My mother hadn’t seen an apple (no, not one of those) for four years, and when I walked down the aisle eating one, she was quick to ask where I’d got it from. For that historical reason, there is always something special for me about flying British Airways, as I did last night traveling from Copenhagen to London.

There were three publications in the seat pocket, and the March 2010 print edition of Business Life caught my attention. In the book review section, I found this gem from Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Talking about the authors, the reviewer writes:

They explain how a friend has used social networks to analyse the success or otherwise of Broadway musicals. “He finds that if the key players — the director, costume designer, sound person, producer, etc — all worked together before, and everyone knows everyone else, then the show is a flop. He also finds that if you put together a group of people who have never worked together before, the show is also a flop. But if you put together a group of people some of whom have worked together and some who haven’t, then the show is a runaway critical success with enormous financial rewards.”

I wonder two things: (1) why this happens, and (2) if it applies equally to project teams at work.

On the “why”, my sense is:

  • Well-Formed Groups … That lack of creative tension and too much recollection of how other people work leads the first type of teams to fail (where everyone has worked together before or knows each other already). The director recalls how the producer deals with people, and the producer feels that she’s already proved herself so doesn’t work so hard.
  • Extremely Novice Groups … That the need to start from scratch in getting good social relations going, as well as pushing up on a performance deadline, is too much for the second type of group (where no-one has worked together before). The director pushes the producer to 70% of capability, but doesn’t realize he could push another 30%. There’s just too much to learn, in too short a period of time.
  • Mixed Well-Formed Sub-Group and Novice Sub-Group … The third type of group above, where there are some people who worked together before combined with new members is positioned as the most effective. This is because the social development requirements of the group do not overwhelm the task focus. The people who have worked together before will take a lead in modeling how they work together, and the new members will both challenge that thinking and approach, as well as pitching in and aligning with what’s being advocated as the way to work. There’s still creative tension to drive great performances, but not too much to render the social-task balance unworkable.

With respect to the second question, my sense is that the same dynamics will apply at work as in theatre. So if you’re getting mediocre results from projects, mix things up!

Of the three project team designs above, which have resulted in the most effective outcomes at your work?

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