Mini: What happens when people are on too many teams? (John Hollenbeck)

February 18, 2021 Daniel Serfaty
Mini: What happens when people are on too many teams? (John Hollenbeck)
Mini: What happens when people are on too many teams? (John Hollenbeck)
Feb 18, 2021
Daniel Serfaty

Today, many of us find ourselves on a plethora of different teams. Day after day, we spend jumping back and forth between all these different teams that we are members of.  All of this movement begs the question, what happens when people are on too many teams? Join MINDWORKS host, Daniel Serfaty, as he talks one-on-one with Professor John Hollenbeck of Michigan State University about this very question! 

Show Notes Transcript

Today, many of us find ourselves on a plethora of different teams. Day after day, we spend jumping back and forth between all these different teams that we are members of.  All of this movement begs the question, what happens when people are on too many teams? Join MINDWORKS host, Daniel Serfaty, as he talks one-on-one with Professor John Hollenbeck of Michigan State University about this very question! 

John Hollenbeck: I think if I look at organizations right now and you would think that because I'm a team researcher, I want teams everywhere. But I really believe that right now, I look at a lot of organizations, their biggest problem is open embeddedness. People are part of too many teams. They make a decision that, "Oh, it might be nice if this person was there," because that person may [inaudible 00:42:09].

Or they create a multiteam system. Maybe these teams should meet. Now you've just committed 15 people to have to meet because it might be worthwhile for these teams to coordinate. Often, after making a single mistake when there was a lack of coordination, but 19 times out of 20, these guys are well coordinated. One out of 20, there was a lack of coordination and now we have the meet.

The one thing I would tell your audience, the people who are practitioners, be stingy with how you create teams. Be stingy with who's on the team and who's not. The test is not it would be nice to have that person, versus, "No, this team really can't function without this person or this person's specialty," because you might think, "What's the harm in putting Debra on this team?" Oh, we're putting another team. What's the harm of putting Debra on this team, too? Hey, you know this team over here? Debra might have some interesting views on that. And often it's not the same person. It's three different people who don't even know other people are putting Debra on teams [inaudible 00:43:10] people.

And the next thing you know is Debra's running around from one meeting to another, and if she's not taking notes or [inaudible 00:43:17], you shouldn't be at this meeting. If you ever find yourself in a meeting that when it's over, you didn't take notes and you didn't talk? You shouldn't have been there, because the biggest problem with over-embeddedness is that it prevents individual accountability. I can't do my own job, because I'm going from meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting. My job is teaching. I didn't write a word today, because I went from this to this to this. Or I didn't get my homework graded, and I'm a teacher, because I was going from this to this to this.

If the single biggest thing that you need is individual accountability, the single best way organizations can support that is not creating over-embeddedness. If somebody tells you, "Dude, I'm on too many teams," they might be right. So try to avoid that [inaudible 00:44:01].

Daniel Serfaty: I think this is a beautiful, right on, literally right on, concern that many enterprises have these days. More these days, in the times of COVID, than in any other days. Because precisely the barriers of forming teams have disappeared. It is basically how many people you can get on Zoom. And so, we do that... I leave that every day by guiding my team leaders, my managers, to be, I like the term stingy. Don't create a team for everything, and when you create a team, be very stingy on the number of people you're going to bring to that team, because otherwise you hit a fragmentation level that basically start having decreasing return on productivity.

It's a real, real problem today, and any guidance that had come from the researchers or leaders in teams research regarding how to form those teams and how to form them in a way, just in that right middle when there are just enough teams and enough people on the teams, but not too many. Right now, it's an empirical. We have some empirical rules, but it will be great to be guided by theory.

John Hollenbeck: Richard Hackman, 5.4. Ideal team size, 5.4. That's five adults and an eight-year-old. I actually don't know what that eight-year-old does, but it can't hurt. And just to reinforce, there's two things that need to happen at any high-level organization. Yes, you need collaboration. That's true. But you also need individual concentration. If you're working on a complex job and you need to be accountable, you often need to be able to shut the door, turn off the phone, turn off your email, because what you're doing is difficult and it requires concentration.

What I would tell managers, and I've seen some organizations [inaudible 00:45:43] budget, that if you just spent collaboration dollars on me, you just put Hollenbeck in a meeting that he didn't have to go to before. But you owe me some concentration dollars. Where are you giving me time back that I can concentrate on my job? Because left to your own devices, or the uncoordinated devices of 17 different people that put me on 17 different committees, and don't know it? You just destroyed my ability to do my own job.

So anyway, enough about over-embeddedness. [crosstalk 00:46:11].

Daniel Serfaty: With that, I think it's right on. I hope our members of our audience are going to heed that advice. 

Let's turn the dial a little bit toward the future and maybe it is linked to a new form of multiteam systems. This last year of confinement, Zoom work, distributed operations, has basically created this notion of, and I believe we don't have a word in the English language yet for that. A network, a team, a multiteam organization, that because we have lowered the barriers of composing some work organizations, we created these new entities. They're amorphous. Some of them are more structured than others. I wouldn't call them a team, but I don't know how to call them.

My son plays video games with folks he's never met in his life, and he plays them every week. So they meet every week to play together as a team. But maybe it's not a team. It's a [inaudible 00:52:05] of social structure that has been enabled by technology. Are we looking at the dawn of a new way by which human organized to accomplish the goal?

John Hollenbeck: Yeah. Well Amy Edmonson has actually coined the term 'teaming' to get away from the word team. Really what you see at organizations is teaming. It's much more verb, and the word teaming, if you think about it, means it's just teaming with this or teaming with that. Again, it is these really kind of unstructured teams. For your audience doesn't know this, but Daniel and I, another thing that we share is, we both have twins. I went in our basement, my twin boys were playing Halo with, like you said, a bunch of strangers. People were swearing. It was like, "Who are you playing with that are swearing?" And they were like, "Oh, we're playing with these guys from Australia."

So they're in my basement in East [Lancing 00:52:54] playing Halo with a bunch of guys from Australia. For all I know, they could be a real-life SWAT team. Who knows? But like you said, the barriers are so low now that all of a sudden we're playing with different people. Yeah, I definitely think that's part of the group over-embeddedness problem. The fact that it's all technologically mediated makes it harder, too, because a Zoom meeting has a lot of features that, for evolutionary reasons, are not really good for people in the eye context, not good. The head sciences aren't right. It doesn't really simulate being in a room with three-dimensional people in a way, and it's very, very tiring for your human brain to try to process the fact that this is not a normal group situation for your human brain, but your human brain's trying to make it like it is one. It's extremely fatiguing.

Daniel Serfaty: Why is that tiring?

John Hollenbeck: It's just not natural. If we're in a group meeting, all eyes aren't on me. But if I'm in a Zoom meeting with nine people, I'm looking at nine faces all of which look like they're staring at me, even when I'm not talking. You all are staring at me, when you're not. Where if we're in a real-life conference room, I can see that you're looking this way, Debra's looking at [Irash 00:54:02], Dan's on the internet, these two guys are talking to each other. Again, it's just not natural and because it's not natural and we're trying to make it natural, it becomes tiring.

I do think what we're learning with Zoom meetings as [inaudible 00:54:13] is size. Group size is not the number of people, it's the number of communication links. So a group of five is five times four divided by two. That's 10 communication links. Okay. You double that. 10 times nine divided by 2. That's 45 communication. A Zoom meeting with 10 people on it, especially if you follow my rule that if you're not taking notes and you're not contributing to the conversation, you shouldn't be there? That's tough. 10-20? Forget it. The communication links just kind of explode.

I do think we're relearning lessons about team size, and that team size needs to be a lot smaller. I think the other thing we're learning yet again, this is Richard Hackman, and Amy Edmonson is a student of Richard Hackman, so I think she gets this more than the average person. But he was a big fan of boundaries, team boundaries. A team's got to have a hard boundary, and people can't just come in and out of this team like it's Grand Central Station and pop in and pop out, because it's very dysfunctional. So he was a big fan of not just small teams, N=5.4, by the way, was his number. But also teams with really strong boundaries.

So like, okay. We may want to let the other people in. But not routinely, and I do think that the concept of teaming recognizes that we've sacrificed a lot of that and that we just throw teams together all the time. It takes a long time to build a team. They've got to to through stages of development. If we interrupt that every time, we shake them up. And so it's ironic because people believe in teams, and that's why they're constantly forming them, not recognizing that they're engaging in very self-defeating behavior because they keep stirring up the teams that they're trying to build where they just really need to leave them alone and respect their boundaries, and maintain their boundaries.

Daniel Serfaty: I think this notion of boundaries is important. I have so many questions about that. I want to make sure that I don't ask all of them. But I think since I've seen that as you have probably evolved the notion of maintaining team size for meaningful interaction, and by meaningful I just don't mean productive interactions but also meaningful in terms of does it enrich me to interact with that person? In more and more meetings I go to now, virtual meetings, they'll use breakout rooms to make those teams, to control basically team size through Zoom device to break people up into four or five people teams, has been used almost empirically by people because they wanted to get some work done because they realize that team size have to be controlled.

John Hollenbeck: I do a lot of online teaching, and one of the first things they teach you in online teaching is you can't just go, for my MBA class, me against 40. You must break out into breakout groups, because otherwise it's so much harder for the students to have... The students think there are 40 faces looking at them, which is not true. But you go into these breakout rooms. I not very good at technology, and I go to a breakout group it's like, "Oh man. I hope they come back." I lost two MBA students, the FBI's looking for them. We went into a chat room, they never came back and Daniel, I hate to say it. We still don't know where those kids are.

Daniel Serfaty: They are lost in cyberspace somewhere.

John Hollenbeck: They're lost in cyberspace. And so yeah, chat rooms are important but make sure you get every single kid back because otherwise there's going to be some hard questions asked.

Daniel Serfaty: I want to turn the page on this one, because I think that at the end of the day, I wonder, it's really a research question almost or a philosophical question even, more than a research question. I wonder if perhaps our generation concept of the social structure called teams, which has been essential to our professional, personal development, professional success, is basically disappearing. It's disappearing because our next generation, your twins, my twins, are much more tolerant of surface-level connection, and because they are tolerant of that surface-level connection, they are not superficial. That's the way they conceive of that connection with that coworker in Finland, or that coplayer in Australia.

They can sustain many more of those connections because they are not as deep as we think they should be. Therefore, I think this notion of teaming will be interesting for the next generation of researchers to see whether or not there is actually an age different between the digital natives, the people that grew up with the network, and people who did not.

John Hollenbeck: I hope you're right. I will say that as an evolutionary psychologist, that brain that you have in your head and the brain that I have in my head was basically developed two million years ago, and it doesn't respond overnight to changes in technology. You have a hunter-gatherer brain. So do I. So I worry about it. I will tell you my son, Tim, one of my twins, he thinks he has 10,000 friends. Well Tim, see if any of your 10,000 friends are going to come help you move this week, because I'll bet you go over 10,000, see if anybody will let you use their pickup truck. He doesn't have 10,000 friends.

I had a student come in because one of my classes, I take their technology away. Especially I have a class of freshmen, and it's kind of like Independence Day when they see the aliens and it's like, "Well, if you take away their technology, they're just like humans." That's what I'm learning about freshmen in college, because I'm 63 years old. Even my kids are 31. These are aliens to me. But you must take their technology away, because you're teaching in a class and a kid's on his phone, he's on the video, and you hear the ESPN jingle going off. So i just shut it down. I go, "For 80 minutes, the 40 of us are just going to be together as individuals, shut off from the outside world, talking to each other."

One of these students came up to me. He says, "I understand where you're coming from. I understand we have to concentrate. I understand we have to focus." He goes, "But you just don't understand how good my generation is at processing parallel information coming from many different angles." He goes, "Dr. Hollenberger, you just got to give me a chance."

I was like, "Son, you had me right up until that Dr. Hollenberger thing, because we've been in class for five weeks and my name's Hollenbeck. I put it up on the board every single time." And so maybe we're seeing an evolution in human history, but I'm not seeing it in some of my students quite yet. But anyway.

Daniel Serfaty: Dr. Hollenbeck, you just perhaps proved that maybe precision is not a value in the future. [crosstalk 01:00:32] in family names, that's less [crosstalk 01:00:35].

John Hollenbeck: Just that big ugly guy that's up there talking. His name's not important. You know how I'm talking about.