The Biggest Mistake You (Probably) Make with Teams

Throughout most of my career, I've made a big mistake in the way I've lead teams — and wouldn't be surprised if you have, too.

Which is more important to promoting collaboration: a clearly defined approach toward achieving the goal, or clearly specified roles for individual team members? The common assumption — and my personal approach for many years — is that carefully spelling out the approach is essential, while leaving the roles of individuals within the team open and flexible will encourage people to share ideas and contribute in multiple dimensions.

But our research has shown that the opposite is true: collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood — in fact, when individuals feel their role is bounded in ways that allow them to do a significant portion of their work independently. Without such clarity, team members are likely to waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task.

We've also found that team members are more likely to want to collaborate if the path to achieving the team's goal is left somewhat ambiguous. If a team perceives the task as one that requires creativity, where the approach is not yet well known or predefined, its members are more likely to invest more time and energy in collaboration.

Consider a team of doctors and nurses working in a hospital emergency room. Before the next ambulance to arrives, they have no idea of the nature of the task ahead. Will the patient require surgery, heart resuscitation, medications? The condition of the next patient is unknown; the tasks that will be required of the team, ambiguous. But at no time while the team waits, do they negotiate roles: "Who would like to administer the anesthesia? Who will set out the instruments? Who will make key decisions?" Each role is clear. As a result, when the patient arrives, the team is able to move quickly into action.

At the BBC, we studied the teams responsible for the radio and television broadcasts of special events and daytime television news. These teams were large — ranging from 66 people in one case to 133 in another — and included members with a wide range of skills and from many disciplines. One would imagine, therefore, that there was a high possibility of confusion among team members.

To the contrary, we found that the BBC's teams scored among the highest in our sample with regard to the clarity with which team members viewed their own roles and the roles of others. Every team was composed of specialists who had deep expertise in their given function, and each person had a clearly defined role. There was no overlap in the responsibilities of the sound technician and of the camera operator, and so on. Yet the tasks the BBC teams tackle are, by their very nature, uncertain and to some extent ambiguous, particularly when they involve covering breaking news. The trick the BBC and others in the film industry have pulled off has been to clarify team members' individual roles with so much precision that it keeps friction, internal competition and the possibility of mistakes of omission to a minimum.

In the same research, we also studied successful teams at Reuters — teams that worked out of far-flung locations and, in many cases, didn't speak a common language. (The primary languages were Russian, Chinese, Thai, and English.) These teams, largely composed of software programmers, were responsible for the rapid development of highly complex technical software and network products. Many of the programmers sat at their desks for 12 hours straight developing code, speaking with no one. Each individual was given autonomy for one discrete, well-defined piece of the project; the rapid pace and demanding project timelines encouraged individual members to work independently to get the job done. Yet because each individual's work had to fit seamlessly into the final product, shaped with an eye toward achieving the overall team goal, these teams judged collaborative behavior to be high among their members.

The leader's role, as I learned from this research, is to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of the team members are clearly defined for the specific project at hand (members' roles may change from project to project to provide variety and broaden experience). Conversely, leaders should help team members understand the project's importance and ultimate objective but leave the exact approach to the discretion of the team.

This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams.

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