March 21, 2012

HR: Why networks are better than teams

In most businesses, the prevailing assumption is that teams are the best way for leadership groups to go when solving a problem. Whenever possible, form a team. That’s what most people believed a decade ago, when Doug Smith and I wrote our book The Wisdom of Teams and a related article in HBR.

But today, with the ever-increasing necessity of working across organizational and geographical boundaries, and the growing complexity of daily business, more leaders at all levels are finding that it’s not always practical or even best to put together a team. Fortunately, we now have more options; in particular, consider the potential of focused networks, and sub-groups that can work more effectively in different modes than "real team." For example, even when I was engaged in my earlier writing on teams, I didn’t really recognize that what looked like a team was in some cases actually a set of networks and sub-units.

What’s the difference? A team is a small group with a leader (leadership can and does shift among the members in a real team), accountable for a specific and compelling performance purpose; it typically has a beginning and an end. In contrast, a network is a larger, informal, loosely defined group of people with various types of expertise, who can weigh in to solve different types of problems.

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