Have you ever seen that video from 2012 of the San Diego fireworks that all got set off at the same time by accident? The explosion is enormous and insane. We might expect that same thing to happen when a team of experts is assembled in business. But in practice, even experts require some massaging to produce stellar results together. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Sri Kudaravalli, Samer Faraj, and Steven L. Johnson share their research on how to do it.
Exploding with Ability
Typically, there are two ways to form a team: put the person with the most experience in charge, or decentralize and let team collaboration reign. Which is more effective for a team of experts? The authors sought to test this in a study with 484 participants in software development, where they averaged 12 years of experience each:
We asked team members to nominate up to four individuals with design expertise on each team and up to four individuals with technical expertise. Next, we asked them to assess how valuable the named individuals’ expertise is to their work. (We calculated a team’s network of expertise by weighing how valuable their expertise was to their work.) We then created a network map of team expertise, based on the nominations and weighted by the reported value. This allowed us to use social network analysis to calculate the centralization of expertise for each team in the design phase and in the implementation phase.
To our surprise, we found that the highest-performing teams were the ones that adopted a different configuration of expertise depending on the needs of the project phase. They decentralized design expertise when identifying solutions, and then centralized technical expertise to build them.
So basically, decentralized collaboration is intuitively more effective for exploration and brainstorming, but once a strategy is set, centralizing around technical knowledge is more practical. And the more complex the work being done, the more effective this structuring became in the research. It makes a lot of sense, even just at a glance.
Working out the governance necessary to enable mid-project team transformations will likely be not as straightforward, but action should be taken on it all the same. For additional thoughts on managing in expert teams, you can view the original article here: https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-get-experts-to-work-together-effectively