Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Experience and Enthusiasm - Making Younger Teams Work

When (and how) does a new, inexperienced team become that trustworthy stalwart that you can depend upon to get the job done—competently and efficiently? The question is a difficult one to answer. In large part, it seems to depend on the complexity of what they are doing; the personalities of the team members; the length of time the team is together; and the culture that the team develops as a whole.

Many of us have been witness to teams that come together quickly, do their job, and disband. Those teams are not the norm, though. Usually, a brand new team needs some time to acclimate to its environment and its individual members. This acclimation time can be lengthened when the members of a new team are distant from each other, the team itself is distant from its leadership structure, or the team has a high number of inexperienced members.

To explore this a little further, it seems necessary to define what a team is in this context before discussing the three areas that can impact its acclimation.

What is a Team?

Perhaps the best definition of what a team is comes from Katzenbach and Smith:
"A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable [1]."
Two parts of this definition lend themselves to further interpretation. First is their use of the term small. While the five other aspects of the definition are "absolute necessities," the addition of the word small is of a more pragmatic value: large numbers of people have difficulty cooperating and working as a single unit and tend to organize themselves into smaller sub-teams. The second part of the definition is not specifically stated, but is implied: team members must be able to easily communicate. Note that the definition does not specifically state that the team must sit together to be effective.

Distributed Teams

Distributed, or highly distributed, teams have several unique issues that tend to impact their ability to acclimate quickly. These include: temporal latency, unexposed (hidden) messages, noise, and difficulty establishing trust. There are others (like national and corporate culture) that will not be discussed in this short blog. A short description of how these impact a team's ability to acclimate to their environment follows:

  • Temporal Latency. When individuals are not collocated, communication delays are inevitable. Distance can even encourage additional. While the amount of time and energy it takes to transfer ideas from one individual to another increases, the quality of the communication simultaneously tends to suffer.

  • Unexposed (hidden) Messages. Certain communications between individuals would benefit the entire team. Collocated teams more easily disseminate these types of communications due to their physical proximity. For example, if the individuals having a discussion do not realize that the information they are discussing would benefit the entire team, others in the room can bring its significance to their attention. In general, it is difficult to expose surreptitious communications between individuals because the individuals themselves must recognize its importance and expose it. The correction for this is usually communication formality (e.g. documentation), which is the least effective format.

  • Noise. Any interruptive influence that can lead to communications misunderstandings or delay is called noise. This can happen in any team environment, but is particularly problematic for distributed teams because of the number of channels a message must pass through and the inherent delay in time between when a message is sent and when it is received.

  • Establishing Trust. Lack of trust and cooperation can be fatal to a team. For distributed teams, trust is easy to establish, but is more difficult to maintain over time unless there is continuous interaction. Research suggests that any physical distance can affect the amount of trust and cooperation even if the distance is simulated and regardless of the magnitude.
The above items impact the team's ability to form and, in the context of this blog, their ability to cohesively work towards the goals that Katzenbach and Smith so eloquently spoke of in their definition of a team.

Distant Leadership Structures

Perhaps one of the greatest impacts to a team's cohesiveness and their ability to acclimate to their environment is the proximity of their leadership and the structure overall. While the latter is important to all teams, the former is of particular interest in this context, as it seems to have more of an impact when the team is in its forming stage. Additionally, leadership within a team can take many forms: The formal structure surrounding the team is only one such form. Indeed, it is this informal leadership that seems to increase their capability over time.

Nevertheless, creating a team that begins with a formal leadership structure that is distant from the remainder of the team tends to impede their ability to acclimate to their social environment, in my opinion. It seems unwise to do this. I have seen teams overcome this, but it takes a lot of dedication and work to make it so.

Ratio of Inexperienced Team Members

Having a high ratio of inexperienced team members can to be a double-edged sword: While it can foster a learning environment and be the source of much enthusiasm, it can also generate a lowest common denominator productivity sink that can run a project into the ground—particularly if there are only one or two experienced members and the team is rather large. I have never found a percentage that is perfect, but I think a good rule of thumb is to use 80-20 where possible: 80% of the team should be experienced in some way and in varying degrees while 20% of the team may be inexperienced. Nevertheless, as with most things related to team theory, success is highly dependent upon the individuals on the team. No one would be happy with highly experienced low performers, for example.


The ability for a team to become cohesive and trusted to "get the job done" relies on multiple factors. These include the size of the team (and whether it can be effectively sub-divided, if necessary); the physical and temporal distance between team members; the physical and temporal distance between tem the team and its leadership; and the ratio of inexperienced to experienced members. While each of these factors affect the team's performance, the final determinant is the amount of time invested in making them a high performance unit. Unfortunately, these additional factors make the amount of time necessary variable.

  1. J. R. Katzenbach and D. K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization, 1993.