Olin research: Leaders of teams of teams must balance members’ interactions

Combatting cybersecurity threats. Guiding space exploration. Developing novel healthcare management systems. Major business and government innovations often rely on multiteam systems, or teams of teams.

But when people work within such systems, known as MTSs, they face challenges. An MTS is a nebulous organization of component teams of specialists that link together to accomplish a broad and overarching objective. That objective exceeds the capacity of any one person or team.

Andrew Knight, Olin professor of organizational behavior, researched the challenges people face when working within team of teams. Specifically, he delved into how the component teams can best coordinate their activities—both within and between teams—to achieve the overarching goals of the whole system.

In the past, scholarship had advanced a perspective that informal modes of coordination—such as informal, interpersonal interactions between MTS members—undermine MTS effectiveness because of their complexity.

A channel for the flow of information

But that view is pessimistic and flawed, Knight and his coauthors argue. Drawing from theory and their research, they derived important implications for those who must lead an MTS.

“Informal interpersonal interactions actually can enable coordination by serving as a channel for the flow of information and a means by which MTS members can mutually adjust their work,” Knight said.

But whether informal coordination helps or hinders MTS functioning depends on how much time team members spend interacting with other members of their own component team, relative to the time that they spend interacting with the members of other teams.

“Members must balance their informal interactions,” Knight said.

Knight discussed his research at a virtual event September 29 as part of Olin’s Business Research Series.

“Our analysis underscores that leaders must carefully manage MTS members’ informal coordination efforts,” he said. Too much time spent focused internally—on coordinating with the members of one’s own component team— detracts from system performance. But too much time spent focused externally—toward other component teams in the system—breeds intrateam conflict that disrupts team performance.

It’s about balance

“To maximize system performance, which is ultimately the most important objective, leaders must ensure that team members balance their allocation of time between the local team and the more global system,” he said.

Knight and his coauthors present their findings in “Performance tensions in multiteam systems: Balancing informal mechanisms of coordination within and between teams,” in press at the Academy of Management Journal. Coauthors are Jonathan C. Ziegert and Christian J. Resickof Drexel University and Katrina A. Graham of Suffolk University.

In addition to his position as a professor, Knight is associate dean of WashU at Brookings and academic director of Olin Lifelong Learning. His areas of expertise are entrepreneurship, leadership, team development and diversity, and his research interests include virtual work, people analytics, collaboration and relationships.

See Knight’s presentation here.

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