On the 7th June 2009, I was sitting in the back of a four man sprint kayak in the middle of a lake in west Germany. I was there with my team of three others racing for my country and competing for selection to the Junior Kayaking World Championships. As the nine boats in the race lined up for the start I looked across at the other crews, they looked comfortable, coordinated and well drilled. For us, it wasn’t the same. This was the first time we’d raced together and although we had trained with each other many times, we had only put the team together a few months ago. In contrast, some of these crews had been training and racing together for the last four years.
As the race started our lack of familiarity began to show. We were out of time from the start and the boat rolled uncomfortably through the middle of the race. When we crossed the finish line we were fifth but I always wonder how much better we would have been if we had been a tightly-knit team rather than four individuals trying our best to work together.
Now, years later, I see the same issues in our consulting and software development teams. These are built of highly capable individuals brought together to complete complex projects, just the same way our kayaking crew was built to compete at the world championships.
As I found in sport and now in business team familiarity — the amount of experience individuals have working with one another — can be a big influencer on how a group performs. Most managers understand this in theory but few are prepared to overcome the organisational hurdles necessary to keep teams together as they under-appreciate the performance benefits:
Learning Curves: Teams experience learning curves the same as individuals. Research conducted on 1,004 development projects involving 11,376 employees at software services firm Wipro found that when team familiarity increased by 50%, software defects decreased by 19%, and deviations from budget decreased by 30%. This is also true for consulting and audit teams that saw high familiarity yielded a 10% improvement in performance, as judged by clients.
Coordination: Diverse, cross-functional teams often have challenges with communication, conflict, and confusion due to the differences among members. Familiarity can help a group overcome this obstacle.
Knowledge Silos: Many teams struggle to know which team member has what information or what skills. It takes time to unearth this knowledge and the more frequently individually work together the more organisations benefit from this time investment.
Change Management: Highly changeable environments or mid-project pivots cause stress and require flexibility. Teams that have been together longer have members that know each other well and can support each other during these times, helping them to handle change.
Competitive Advantage: Organisations, especially consultancies that rely on knowledge workers, create competitive advantage when they have capabilities their competitors cannot replicate. Familiar teams are an advantage because it’s harder for competitors to replicate a performant team. They may recruit similarly skilled individuals but will struggle to replicate the performance advantages of a tight-knit team without significant time investment.
I believe that in both sports and in business we should put a greater value on team familiarity. It has been proven on many occasions that familiar teams perform better over the long term and it’s in the organisation’s interest to cultivate that familiarity. As agile project management becomes more prevalent and organisations build more small cross-functional teams it is worth considering the value of keeping these teams together rather than disbanding them at the end of projects. Ultimately there are large performance gains to be had in keeping teams together and these could be realised if we resource our new projects with existing teams rather than building new teams of individuals.
Thanks for reading this far! If you liked my post lets continue the discussion in the comments or tweet me! I’d love to hear your point of view.
You may also like this post I wrote on teams…