The Liberators
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The Liberators

In-Depth: Stable Or Fluid Teams? What Does The Science Say?

An investigation of three schools of thought on team development and high-performing teams

The need for fluid teams

  1. High turnover among employees, leading to changes in teams
  2. Rapid downsizing or upsizing (e.g. crisis responses, armed conflict)
  3. A desire for different skills at different levels of the work that a team does.
  4. A desire for flexible allocation of personnel
  5. A desire to provide career development opportunities
  6. A desire to avoid toxic behavior by employees
  7. A desire to promote interaction and community in high-reliability workplaces.

What defines fluid and stable teams?

No team is perfectly stable. Even the most stable teams I’ve been part of saw one or two changes in their memberships every year.

Insight #1: Team cognition and teams

It takes time to develop teams. Even for a single 2-day workshop with this design team, we spent a considerable amount of time getting to know each other, practicing and experiencing each other’s styles

Insight #2: Cohesion and small teams

It takes time to create a cohesive team. Illustration by Thea Schukken

Insight #3: Team formation stages

Teams generally develop through a number of stages, although scientific models vary in which stages and in what order. The bottom line is that it takes time to become high-performing.

Four key findings

  1. Two ingredients that connect all three insights are time and interaction. It takes time and frequent interaction for teams to develop the muscle memory they need to become high-performing. Changes to teams can disrupt this process.
  2. Theories around team cognition and team cohesion provide a good explanation for why teams move through different stages of development.
  3. Much of the academic research to date has focused on stable teams, where membership remains more or less the same over their lifecycles. But teams that are stable to that extent are rare in modern workplaces.
  4. There is very little research that investigates specifically how much time it takes for teams to become high-performing, and whether or not such processes can be fast-tracked through training, coaching, and other interventions.

A quick note on who initiates membership changes

A quick note on a potential false dichotomy

So … stable teams or fluid teams?

“However, the studies and the theoretical models we explored all suggest that teams benefit from time and interaction if their aim is to become high-performing.”

“ If organizations are unable to develop high-performing teams from mostly stable teams, it is very unlikely they will succeed with more fluid team designs.”

Closing Words

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Christiaan Verwijs

I liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing, ineffective ways of organizing work. Passionate developer, organizational psychologist, and Scrum Master.