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Volume 9, Issue 21;   May 27, 2009: Teamwork Myths: Formation

Teamwork Myths: Formation

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Last updated: July 18, 2019

Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths. In this first part of our survey of teamwork myths, we examine two myths about forming teams.
Statue of Hermes with modern head

Statue of Hermes with modern head. White marble, Antonine Era, second century. From Porcigliano estates in Castelporziano. Hermes was the ancient Greek god of business, among other duties. Although Greek businessmen probably relied on Hermes for insight and assistance in their deals, most people today would doubt that such reliance ever did much good. So it is with our modern reliance on principles and guidelines for which there is today little evidence or support — our descendants will regard these beliefs as mythology. The work is at Museo delle Terme di Diocleziano in Rome.

People have been working in teams since before the word 'team' was invented, but modern industrial organizations have adopted the team structure in just the past generation. Because the transition from functional structures is still underway, our understanding of teams is incomplete, and in some ways, incorrect.

To advance our knowledge, and to become more comfortable with this relatively new way of organizing work, we adopt and propagate beliefs that seem plausible. They might apply often, but they aren't necessarily universal. I call them myths because their universal truth certainly is questionable, even though they do sometimes yield desirable results.

One popular example is the idea of the "Mythical Man-Month" conceived and popularized by Fred Brooks. This myth holds that we can speed up all work by applying more people to the task. The reverse usually occurs: applying more people usually slows the work.

Brooks's myth is just one of many teamwork myths. Here is the first in a series about teamwork myths, exploring two myths about team formation.

There is an optimal size for all teams
Various investigations have reported optimal sizes for teams, ranging from five to fifteen and more. In team-oriented organizations, wide variation in team size can create management problems, which lead some to search for an optimal team size.
Problems arise, for example, in task reporting, management development, performance management, and compensation equity for team leads. For instance, meeting reporting requirements can be easy for a large team, but an undue burden for a small team.
An optimal team size range probably does exist, but it depends on the culture of the organization in which the team is embedded; the degree of dispersion in geography, language, or profession; the need for specialized knowledge; the complexity of the task; the prevalence of split assignments; and the skill of the team's leadership. Most important is how well the teammates know each other.
When sizing a new team, be guided not by purportedly universal rules of thumb, but by the nature of the task, the character of the organization and the particular people who lead and belong to the team.
Team building is worthwhile only at the beginning
We use team building to achieve team cohesion and effective collaboration. Some believe that after the first application, further investment in team cohesion provides only minimal returns.
Although we do use team building in the beginning of the team's life, we must attend toWe must attend to team
cohesion continuously,
not just at the outset
team cohesion continuously. The need increases with the frequency of changes in team composition; with increases in geographic dispersion; and with increases in stress. Stresses can result from new challenges, or from changes in resources, requirements, or constraints imposed from external sources.

Following erroneous guidelines is always problematic. It can be especially damaging during team formation, because damage occurs so early and repair can be so, so costly.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: One Cost of Split Assignments  Next Issue

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For more teamwork myths, see "Teamwork Myths: Conflict," Point Lookout for June 17, 2009, and "Teamwork Myths: I vs. We," Point Lookout for July 1, 2009.

The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Anniversary Edition (2nd Edition)The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering is a classic of the literature of software engineering, but it has a place on the bookshelf of any project manager or project sponsor. Order from Amazon.com

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