Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 21;   May 27, 2009: Teamwork Myths: Formation

Teamwork Myths: Formation

by

Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths. In this first part of our survey of teamwork myths, we examine two myths about forming teams.
Statue of Hermes with modern head

Statue of Hermes with modern head. White marble, Antonine Era, second century. From Porcigliano estates in Castelporziano. Hermes was the ancient Greek god of business, among other duties. Although Greek businessmen probably relied on Hermes for insight and assistance in their deals, most people today would doubt that such reliance ever did much good. So it is with our modern reliance on principles and guidelines for which there is today little evidence or support — our descendants will regard these beliefs as mythology. The work is at Museo delle Terme di Diocleziano in Rome.

People have been working in teams since before the word 'team' was invented, but modern industrial organizations have adopted the team structure in just the past generation. Because the transition from functional structures is still underway, our understanding of teams is incomplete, and in some ways, incorrect.

To advance our knowledge, and to become more comfortable with this relatively new way of organizing work, we adopt and propagate beliefs that seem plausible. They might apply often, but they aren't necessarily universal. I call them myths because their universal truth certainly is questionable, even though they do sometimes yield desirable results.

One popular example is the idea of the "Mythical Man-Month" conceived and popularized by Fred Brooks. This myth holds that we can speed up all work by applying more people to the task. The reverse usually occurs: applying more people usually slows the work.

Brooks's myth is just one of many teamwork myths. Here is the first in a series about teamwork myths, exploring two myths about team formation.

There is an optimal size for all teams
Various investigations have reported optimal sizes for teams, ranging from five to fifteen and more. In team-oriented organizations, wide variation in team size can create management problems, which lead some to search for an optimal team size.
Problems arise, for example, in task reporting, management development, performance management, and compensation equity for team leads. For instance, meeting reporting requirements can be easy for a large team, but an undue burden for a small team.
An optimal team size range probably does exist, but it depends on the culture of the organization in which the team is embedded; the degree of dispersion in geography, language, or profession; the need for specialized knowledge; the complexity of the task; the prevalence of split assignments; and the skill of the team's leadership. Most important is how well the teammates know each other.
When sizing a new team, be guided not by purportedly universal rules of thumb, but by the nature of the task, the character of the organization and the particular people who lead and belong to the team.
Team building is worthwhile only at the beginning
We use team building to achieve team cohesion and effective collaboration. Some believe that after the first application, further investment in team cohesion provides only minimal returns.
Although we do use team building in the beginning of the team's life, we must attend toWe must attend to team
cohesion continuously,
not just at the outset
team cohesion continuously. The need increases with the frequency of changes in team composition; with increases in geographic dispersion; and with increases in stress. Stresses can result from new challenges, or from changes in resources, requirements, or constraints imposed from external sources.

Following erroneous guidelines is always problematic. It can be especially damaging during team formation, because damage occurs so early and repair can be so, so costly.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: One Cost of Split Assignments  Next Issue

For more teamwork myths, see "Teamwork Myths: Conflict," Point Lookout for June 17, 2009, and "Teamwork Myths: I vs. We," Point Lookout for July 1, 2009.

Order from AmazonThe Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering is a classic of the literature of software engineering, but it has a place on the bookshelf of any project manager or project sponsor. Order from Amazon.com

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenUUcsgEbArKfqLCmhner@ChacAIZjUdeFGoSPWzEfoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Chair clusterGive It Your All
If you have the time and resources to read this, you probably have a pretty good situation, or you have what it takes to be looking for one. In many ways, you're one of the fortunate few. Are you making the most of the wonderful things you have? Are you giving it your all?
A captive white rhinoFour Popular Ways to Mismanage Layoffs: II
Staff reduction is needed when expenses overtake revenue. But when layoffs are misused, or used too late, they can harm the organization more than they help. Here's Part II of an exploration of four common patterns of mismanagement, and some suggestions for those managers and other employees who recognize the patterns in their own companies.
Two barnacles affixed to the shell of a green musselSome Hidden Costs of Business Fads
Adopting business fads is an expensive organizational pattern, with costs that extend beyond what can be measured by the chart of accounts most organizations use. Here are some examples of the hidden costs of business fads.
The impeachment managers for the impeachment of U.S. President Andrew JohnsonProblem-Solving Preferences
When people solve problems together, differences in preferred approaches can surface. Some prefer to emphasize the goal or objective, while others focus on the obstacles. This difference is at once an asset and annoyance.
A piece of chocolate cakeEgo Depletion and Priority Setting
Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenpqViIhCFwLLRLwgFner@ChacfSHMpeuIamdtNCbuoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.