Teams are everywhere at work. They have become a foundation of every workplace. But working in a team or managing one is extremely hard, frustrating, and mentally taxing. It’s not the tasks, but the team dynamics. To top it off, a team and a project goes through different phases, and team dynamics have to change for each phase. Fail to gently steer collaboration patterns into a new shape, and you won’t get the results you are hoping for. I’ll explain four patterns and their benefits and drawbacks.
Why informal power structures matter
Ever tried to visit a country without asking anybody for advice? Or getting a job? What about processing bad news? Or introducing a new tool in your company?
These are just examples of situations that are close to impossible to get done without having the right people involved. That's because soft or informal power is what drives outcomes. It is only by building the right connections, informal power, that you can achieve your goals. We intuitively know this for our personal goals. We ask friends for recommendations for restaurants. That’s getting something done (having a nice meal) thanks to relationships you have built.
The same principle is true for team goals. Teams, communities, or social movements achieve their desired outcomes thanks to the informal power structure inside the team and between teams. Most of us forget that and focus on the task.
An informal power structure is the outcome of peer-to-peer interactions. You talk with someone, you exchange information, and you influence their decision. Call it what you like: power, reputation, or influence. Of course, there are slight nuances between these words. However, discussing these fine details distracts from the point — it’s through conversations that we influence each other. What to eat, whether to start or stop smoking, or jumping off a cliff into the sea during a festival.
Two dimensions of information structure
I'll be using two dimensions to describe the informal structure of a team: inward vs. outward and roomy vs. tight.
Inward and outward describe whether the center of attention in conversations is within the team (inward) or toward non-team members (outward). It’s a way to describe where the echo chamber is situated: inside your team or outside your team (e.g., company, industry).
When the team structure is inward-facing, team members spend more time talking with each other about their project or tasks than with people on other teams or companies. An outward-facing conversation structure is the opposite of this. A lot of the conversations happen with people who are not on their team.
Imagine your team isn't happy with how their daily stand-ups are structured. If they have an inward-facing structure, they'll solve the problem ("we don't like our daily stand-up structure") by having conversations among each other, reviewing the structure, weighing pros and cons and so on. However, if they have an outward-facing structure, they'll talk with members of other teams, ex-colleagues or peers they met at a conference about the problem.
The other dimension, tight vs. roomy, describes the density of communication patterns. Continuing the analogy of the echo chamber, tight vs. roomy describes the intensity of the echo chamber: This can be loud (tight) or faint (roomy).
If there is a tight communication pattern, there is a high overlap between who is talking with whom. It's like a packed room of friends at a party: Everyone is talking with everyone. Of course not at the same time, but throughout the party, everyone will have had at least one conversation with everyone else.
A tight structure cements shared mental models about acceptable behavior, what the team's purpose is, how to talk with each other, what tools to use. It’s good for cohesion. That’s because people get frequent signals about what behavior is acceptable. Tight structures are quite common for small teams or friendship groups.
If the conversation pattern is roomy, there are pockets of people talking with each other, but not with others in the team or ecosystem. Continuing with the example of a party, imagine this party happening at a large conference. Not everyone will talk with everyone, and you’ll have subcultures.
Benefits and drawbacks of each structure
Inward and roomy
In a team with an inward-facing but roomy structure, not every member will talk with everyone else. This is quite common in larger teams or teams spread across time zones. This team can more easily develop specialized sub-teams or prototype radically different ideas, assuming its members have sufficient expertise. However, you can also see a lack of alignment between the sub-teams and in-team fighting.
Inward and tight
In a team with an inward-facing but tight structure, conversations about projects and work happen mostly with other team members, and everyone is involved collaborating with everyone else. This leads to high cohesion and team alignment, culminating in a very efficient team. But, it can backfire and create groupthink and lack of innovation if the team lacks effective brainstorming tactics or lacks psychological safety.
Outward and roomy
When conversation patterns are outward-facing and roomy, the team is easily flooded with new ideas. It also has access to a multitude of resources thanks to team members’ unique network of peers, mentors, partners and experts. However, the roomy conversation patterns can quickly lead to chaos when team members lose sight of the overall team goal and disagree on how to best achieve it.
Outward and tight
In a team with outward-facing but tight conversation patterns, the team is communicating a lot with non-team members about their work. However, these conversations are happening with the same set of non-team members, due to the high overlap in team members’ network. This collaboration structure is commonplace in niche industries. It can lead to a quick proliferation and adoption of new products, tools, or standards. However, it can also reinforce bad habits or lead to a stale team with no innovation.
Adapt the structure to what your team needs at the moment
Teams normally don’t stay within one collaboration pattern. They move from one to the other, depending on their current needs. At TogetherCrew, our structure is outward facing during user interviews and the ideation phase. We talk with non-team members in our industry and target market to understand the needs. We also have a roomy and outward-facing structure when looking for best practices. But when it comes to synthesizing our findings, we turn insight and create tight interaction patterns to shelter us from the ongoing stream of new ideas.
Signs of the wrong communication structure are missed deadlines, lack of innovation, conflict between team members, or not staying up-to-date with industry trends. These can be solved through an audit of brainstorming tools, processes and team collaboration patterns.
The purpose of the audit is twofold: First, review the processes and tools your team is using. Through a series of interviews with team members, we will gather what processes and tools are in place and team members’ use of them. Second, using a network survey we will establish your team’s collaboration pattern. With the help of these data points, we can make evidence-based suggestions on how to improve your team’s effectiveness.
Contact me to learn more.