Probing Question: What makes a great business team?

The ability of employees to work effectively in teams is often critical to a company's success. Given the accepted importance of collaboration, why do managers and employees often find teamwork -- and its results -- so unsatisfying?

According to Stephen Humphrey, associate professor of management in the Penn State Smeal College of Business, companies too often assemble teams based merely on availability of members, and this kind of grouping is destined to fail.

Humphrey says it's crucial for managers to learn how to form great, high-performing business teams. In his role as research director for the Center for Teams and Negotiation, he dedicates much of his work to solving the "how-to" question.

"Sixty to seventy percent of a team's success lies in the design stage," he notes. "It's critical to get the right people together.

"The first step is to analyze the problem you want that team to solve," Humphrey explains. "For example, if we're looking for a creative outcome -- say, an innovation of some kind -- that has a very different meaning than if we're looking to have a team maintain a process."

Humphrey uses an insect analogy to make his point, comparing various team tasks to the motions of jumping, hovering and running. "Typically insects can do one of those things really well, but not everything," he says. "Jumping, or getting a burst of creativity; running, or performing at an optimal level; and hovering, maintaining a process, each requires a unique team construction."

The "hovering" team is perhaps the most straightforward. This team is constructed to perfect a routine and then keep it going. A film crew and a sales team are good examples; the main function of each member is to perform a specific role, and that role doesn't change.

"This team is really about maximally exploiting the capabilities of an individual within a prescribed role," says Humphrey.

The "running" team's goal is to perform, but not necessarily to innovate. To construct a team capable of a high level of task performance, managers should look to their resources and pick out one or two "stars," or high-level performers, around which to build a team.

"IBM started doing this a few years ago," explains Humphrey. "They keep their star players on the bench a lot and bring them out in these situations to build a team around them."

Supporting members of the team need to fit well, personality-wise, with the star player, and they should have strengths in areas where the star might be weaker.

A "jumping" team, which has the goal of generating innovative solutions to complex problems, should be cross-functional, adds Humphrey. "For example, if Ideo -- an innovation and design firm based in California -- wants to put together a team on innovating hospital process flow, they might bring in a sociologist, a medical doctor, a psychologist, an engineer and an architect."

Leadership in these types of teams should be fluid, not fixed, and members should be trained to step up when their expertise is needed.

"Creativity emerges when team members are willing to hand off control to the expert," says Humphrey. "Managers should work to build a culture around recognizing that everyone is on the team for a reason and has a particular expertise. The team has to be willing to confer leadership to the expert on a particular issue."

Once the team is assembled, the right kind of managerial leadership becomes crucial. Leaders, says Humphrey, should encourage two-way communication between themselves and team members.

"Weaker leaders will say, 'Here's what I want you to do,' and then leave. But if you don't encourage two-way communication, you're not going to get the performance level that you want."

Managers should also foster the teamwork skills of their employees over time, recognizing that the goal is not just to foster the current team, but to invest in future successes as well.

"As a leader, you need to talk to people after the teamwork is complete, asking what went wrong, and what went right," says Humphrey. "Everyone can take that information with them into the next teamwork situation, hopefully making it work better."

As teamwork continues to be a critical aspect of everyday work, Humphrey says that more focus on proper team design and effective managerial coaching will not only bring better results -- they'll bring happier team players.


Stephen Humphrey, associate professor of management in the Penn State Smeal College of Business and the research director for the Center for Teams and Negotiation, can be reached at seh25@psu.edu.

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Last Updated October 15, 2013