We will focus on teams that are given tasks that must be completed within a specific time frame, for instance a set number of items by close of business or objectives to be reached by a specific date, and we will also investigate the difference in performance between larger and smaller teams. Our case studies are based on client interventions by a management consulting company that co-author Anton Burger worked for. During these client interventions he worked with and managed teams ranging from two to 110 people across various industries.
An interesting truth was revealed during two such client interventions several years apart when two teams, one large and one small, had to deliver the same type of solution. The smaller team delivered the work within a significantly shorter time frame and with a smaller budget.
Over the 19-year period that our co-author Anton Burger worked with and managed teams, the question was often asked, why are smaller teams able to achieve so much more? Let’s look at the following example.
A big life insurance company wanted to computerise their business processes to improve operational efficiencies. This would not only bring down operational cost but also improve customer experience.
The management team of the organisation approached Victor Pereira (pseudonym), a management consultant, to assist with the selection of suitable software to computerise the business and to put a team together to implement the system. A system was soon selected and a seven-member team was established.
The team consisted of a team leader, a two-man development team, an IT expert and a three-man business analysis (to determine the needs of the business) and testing team. The members of the team were all specialists in their fields and had much experience.
Besides the normal challenges that go with a project of this nature, there was one additional challenge — the version of the software in question had never before been implemented anywhere in the world. The client would be the first.
Adding to this challenge was the fact that, should any software code issues come up, they could only be resolved by the software provider based in the United States. This meant the team needed to be flexible and had to work after hours in South Africa to coincide with the working hours of the software provider.
However, the project team took ownership of the challenges and was determined to solve the issues and implement the system. The relatively small size of the team made communication and decision-making easier.
Large teams heighten complexity
Each team member was adaptable, committed to the project goals, and took ownership. This insured effective and high-quality deliverables. A combination of factors, such as the size of the team, the right people with the right skills and their commitment to the goals, ensured that the project was delivered four months ahead of schedule and R2 million under budget.
After the successful completion of the project, Victor was approached by the life insurance company to salvage a project to replace their outdated and disparate transactional systems (that had already been computerised) with a single modern system. The company had already spent some time and money trying to implement a new transactional system but little progress had been made. As project director, Victor was confronted with the challenge to restart the project and complete it within the original time frame with a smaller budget.
Given the time pressure, the company believed throwing a big team at the problem would help solve it. Up until this point in his career, Victor had predominantly worked with smaller teams and had never experienced the challenges surrounding teamwork in a team of this size.
A mixture of existing and new teams was assigned to the project. This overall team, totalling 110, was made up of multiple sub-teams ranging between four and 12, each with their own team leader. Multiple vendors supplied software components, which had to be integrated with each other and existing interfaces.
The multiple teams and vendors, combined with a highly regulated financial services environment, created an extremely complex project. The size of the greater team posed a significant challenge in terms of communication and co-ordination. Teams started planning their respective deliverables, sometimes without consulting or planning with other teams that were involved. Some team leaders excluded team members from the planning process, which meant that team members could not commit to time frames. This led to a lack of commitment with team members not taking ownership.
Consequently, the project struggled to gain momentum. A project of this scale requires careful planning and coordination between the different teams involved. Teams depended on deliverables from other teams to meet deadlines. For example, the development team could not start development unless the business analysis team had completed their business needs specifications.
The problems were exacerbated by the fact that team leaders did not have the right authority levels to make decisions on the spot and this also hampered progress. One of the key teams started missing critical deliverables, which had a negative impact on all the other teams.
The moment non-delivery becomes a reality, pressure mounts for all parties involved. At times like these the level of trust among team members is the glue that holds things together. However, in this case there was a breakdown in trust among some members of the overall leadership team.
At this point Victor realised that at the current rate of progress the team would not reach the project goals. An intervention was needed. He red-flagged it with the managing director of the company and it was decided that a different approach to coordination was urgently needed.
The project was stopped and the approach reevaluated. The entire project was re-planned but this time with all the team leaders and team members involved. Victor was astounded by the complete about-turn in the team morale. This resulted in more realistic timelines and commitment from all team members, which fostered a sense of ownership.
The project made good progress but sadly, due to the significant delays, the original launch dates could not be achieved and the project was over budget. Surprisingly (or not), the small team that was incorporated into the bigger team made excellent progress and delivered on their scope of work, on time.
Small teams achieve better teamwork
The value of teamwork, the importance of managing teams well and even the effectiveness of smaller teams have been well documented and developed over the past 70 years. In the 1950s a more scientific approach was introduced to the concept of teamwork when two American engineers, Joseph M. Juran and W. Edwards Deming, took their philosophy on quality to Japan. They were invited by the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers to do something about the perceived poor quality of Japanese products.
Their thinking gave birth to the concept of Quality Circles — a system in which small teams of employees voluntarily come together to define and solve a quality or performance-related problem. Secondly, it led to Total Quality Management — a system of managerial, statistical and technological concepts and techniques aimed at achieving quality objectives throughout an organisation.
This system expanded into teams with the relevant authority (at low levels) to make decisions. During the late 1980s and early 1990s organisations across the globe were dominated by self-managing teams, relatively small and highly autonomous work teams that take responsibility for a product, project or service, and self-directed teams, small groups of employees who have day-to-day responsibility for managing themselves and their work.
Another type of team that is often used to improve organisational performance is a mission-directed work team. The aim of mission-directed work teams is to provide leaders and their teams with the skills to:
- Achieve high and continually improving levels of quality, speed and cost effectiveness
- Establish goal alignment and business focus
- Benchmark themselves against best leadership and workplace practices to identify and address high leverage areas for improvement in a systematic manner
- Create a visual workplace (the use of pictures, graphics and other images to convey information and meaning quickly and simply) to simplify the management
- of objectives
- Achieve teamwork, participation and continuous learning.
- Work teams have gained worldwide acceptance in organisations. However, while teamwork is essential to organisational performance, effective teamwork is often elusive.
A decline in effectiveness is often caused by teams that are too big, teams that do not have a clear purpose or a structured plan or are made up of the wrong members. Teams that are not trusted with great responsibility and are not allowed much freedom to make their own decisions may also fail. Conflict, mistrust and poor leadership are often the leading causes of poor performance by a team.
Professors Martin Hoegl, head of the Institute of Leadership and Organisation at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Hans Georg Gemuenden, of BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo and K. Praveen Parboteeah of University of Wisconsin–Whitewater investigated the effects of team size on teamwork quality among 58 software development projects. They found that the top five teams, in terms of teamwork quality, ranged in size from three to six members and the bottom five from seven to nine members. More significantly, on average, teams of three members achieved 63% of the teamwork quality of the best team, which is in stark contrast to teams of nine members which only achieved 28%.