Is Your Team Coordinating Too Much, or Not Enough?March 25, 2017
Effective teams don’t just happen — you design them. And two of the most important elements of that design are a.) the degree to which team members are interdependent — where they need to rely on each other to accomplish the team task, and b.) how you’ll actually coordinate that interdependence.
This issue arose when I presented a leadership team with survey results showing that its team members had very different beliefs about how much they needed to actively coordinate their work to achieve the team’s goals. Several members believed they were like a gymnastics team: they could achieve team goals by simply combining each member’s independent work, much like a gymnastics team rolls up the scores of individuals’ events to achieve its team score. Others — especially the leader — believed the team should function more like a hockey team: they could achieve their goals only through complex and often spontaneous coordination. I pointed out that until the team reached agreement on this fundamental disconnect, they would continue to have a difficult time achieving their goals.
You can tell when a team doesn’t have a good fit between interdependence and coordination. If there is insufficient coordination, team members have difficulty getting information from each other, completing tasks, and making decisions. If there is more coordination than required, team members will spend unnecessary time and effort on tasks, which slows the team down.
You can also tell when there isn’t agreement about how much interdependence or coordination is needed. If you design your team assuming that members need to be highly interdependent and need a high degree of coordination, members who believe they aren’t interdependent will complain that others are asking them to attend meetings, do work, and be part of decisions that aren’t a good use of their time. On the other hand, if you design your team with minimal coordination, assuming that members don’t need to be interdependent, then those who believe that they do need to be interdependent will be frustrated by colleagues who seem uncooperative. They’ll complain that they can’t get the help they need from others, and that the team doesn’t have adequate communication and problem solving processes in place. In short, poorly designed interdependence and coordination — or a lack of agreement about them — can diminish the team’s results, working relationships, and the well-being of individual team members.
Because the type of coordination required depends on the type of interdependence, you need to design the interdependence first. The organizational theorist James Thompson identified three types of task interdependence that can be used to design your team: pooled, sequential, and reciprocal.
- In pooledinterdependence, the team accomplishes its tasks simply by combining everyone’s separate efforts. Pooled interdependence is an effective design when your team members are doing the same task in parallel (such as procuring different services or responding to customer complaints) or are doing parts of a task that can easily be combined to achieve the overall task (such as entering data to be aggregated or writing discrete sections of a standard report). It works well when the task can be standardized. Your sales team is designed with pooled interdependence if you and others sell individually and combine your monthly individual sales numbers to get the team result. The gymnastics team referenced above is really a group with pooled interdependence. To be a team you need a team task — one that requires that members actively work with each other to accomplish it.
- In sequentialinterdependence, your team members rely on each other in predictable ways for the flow of information, work and decisions. Each person’s output becomes the input for the next person in the sequence. Sequential interdependence is an effective design when some parts of the team’s task can be standardized, but other parts need to be modified or customized, depending on the situation or client at hand. For example, in a sales team designed with sequential interdependence, Anil might qualify a client, and then the two of you discuss and agree on how you should best address the client’s needs. You then meet with the client and reach agreement on the work to be produced. Next, you meet with Donna, jointly agree on any modifications that need to be made to the standard agreement, and Donna produces the agreement. In sequential interdependence, each person must complete his or her task before anyone later in the sequence and can complete theirs.
- In reciprocal interdependence, your team members are sequentially interdependent, but in addition, work back and forth. Team members need to adjust to each others’ actions as the situation changes. For example, a hockey team has reciprocal interdependence. This is an effective design when the nature of the team’s work is inherently uncertain or when the team works in an environment where they need to adjust to changes from customers or managers midstream. You can’t always know in advance which members need to be involved at any given point in the process. For example, in a reciprocally interdependent sales team, after you and Anil agree on how to best address the client’s needs, you decide which technical experts on your team will help craft a proposal for the client. You begin meeting with these experts to jointly decide what you can deliver that meets the client’s needs, while also being technically and operationally feasible, not to mention profitable. As the client provides feedback on your initial proposal, you and the technical experts meet to modify the proposal. As you are meeting, the client adds new specifications, which leads you to bring in another expert to address that issue. This process continues until you have completed the proposal.
After you decide on the degree of interdependence needed for your team to achieve the goal at hand, you select the type of coordination that fits it. As you move from pooled to sequential to reciprocal interdependence, the team needs a more complex type of coordination:
- Standardization is the appropriate type of coordination for pooled interdependence. By agreeing in advance on a set of rules and processes that everyone will follow, everyone’s output can be easily combined to achieve the task. The standardized process remains unchanged as long as the situation is stable. That’s why in pooled interdependence, you may hear someone say, “Please, all I’m asking is that each of you complete the online forms correctly and on time. It’s not that difficult! If you just do that, we’ll be able to roll up our numbers each week.”
- Planning is the appropriate type of coordination for sequential interdependence. Planning means coordinating schedules, deadlines, and other relevant information at the beginning of the process, as well as outlining cases where the process might need to change.
- Mutual adjustmentis the appropriate type of coordination for reciprocal interdependence. Mutual adjustment means that at any time, any team member may introduce new information which affects who will need to coordinate with whom moving forward. It can handle the most uncertainty, and it also has the greatest risks.
The fit between interdependence and coordination affects everything else in your team. Design the fit well — and ensure that the team agrees — and you will create a solid foundation on which the team can accomplish its tasks.