The good, bad and ugly of multi-team membership

“Professionals are now members of four different teams on average”, according to a recent benchmarking survey,”four teams with say 3–5 key goals each means 12–20 key initiatives to juggle and try to stay on top of.”

Rise of multiple team membership

Today’s prevalence of multiple team membership (MTM), also referred to as multi-teaming, involves teams crossing intra-organisational, geographical and organisational boundaries, with global, virtual and multi-organisational teams.

More than 70% of digitally mature organisations are organised around cross-functional teams according to MIT and Deloitte’s 2017 report.

Distinct from occasional contributions and advice from consultants or other people, teammembers are defined as a group of individuals working interdependently towards shared outcomes they are jointly responsible for over a period of time.

How does multi-teaming impact individual, team and organisational performance?

Benefits of multi-teaming

The Overcommitted Organisation by Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner provides numerous reasons for the rise of multi-teaming:

  • Solving complex problems requires the collaboration of experts in multiple disciplines, being assigned across multiple projects optimises the use of knowledge workers’ time and expertise when no one project or team requires 100% of their time.
  • Market competitiveness plus technology enabling the ability to track the downtime of workers assigned to projects and initiatives, has increased pressure to better manage underutilisation of human resources.
  • Multi-disciplined, cross-functional and multi-organisational teams enable diversified knowledge transfer, collaboration and the dissemination of best practices and learning across organisations that stimulate innovation, quality and efficiency.
  • Prevalence of operating models and organisations structured around team and project based work, and the rise of freelancers as part of the gig economy, facilitate multi-teaming.

The dynamic relationship between multiple team membership and individual job performance also highlights

multi-teaming boosts the social capital of employees by increasing and diversifying interpersonal connections that provide access to knowledge, resources, information and political associations. All of which can be career enhancing.

Challenges of multi-teaming

Temporal misalignment occurs when teams share members but are out of sync with the frequency and timing of meetings and working sessions, including associated work effort to meet deadlines, to the extent that team members can’t meet their obligations for all of their teams, all of the time. The Overcommitted Organisation describes the effects of juggling conflicting demands and priorities for members of multiple teams frequently experience.

One person likened it to being “slapped about” by different project leaders.

When a surprise problem jolts one project that “requires all hands on deck” from members shared with other projects, there’s usually a flow on effect, workers having to put in extra hours and/or other projects not delivering.

  • Increasing the number of members shared by different teams, also increases co-ordination and overhead costs, reducing the productivity benefits of MTM.
  • As the ratio of shared team members increases so too do conflicting demands and priorities, projects more frequently missing out on requisite work effort, knowledge and expertise for activities, reducing the quality and capability benefits of MTM.

Multi-teaming is counterintuitive for Agile and Scrum teams, reliant on known team capacity on which to calculate velocity, rituals and rhythms of daily stand-ups and retrospectives. The cost of context switching between projects also takes the ‘agile’ out of Agile.

The Overcommitted Organisation list other challenges of:

  • weakened relationships and coherence within teams and projects, if time isn’t spent on personal interactions that develop trust and familiarity, and enable new members to understand every team’s unique context.
  • stress associated with over committed employees, who have to push back capacity issues to multiple team managers and/or work long hours
  • over committed employees also create political tension about scarce, shared human resources
  • over committed employees at best manage to do what they have to do, but don’t have the time to share ideas and knowledge
  • employees may feel commoditised, weakening their identification with their employer

Context switching is when individuals have to shift between two or more team contexts, the challenge being the frequency workers are required to do so (scheduled times and ad-hoc requests which research shows could be ~6 times daily) and also the degree of difference in team contexts.

Team contexts can vary in a number of ways, from working styles and personalities, to the nature of work, tasks, tools, technology, roles, locations, stakeholders and routines.

Multiple Team Membership: A Theoretical Model of Its Effects on Productivity and Learning for Individuals and Teams proposes there is a tipping point whereby benefits for individuals start to erode as the scale of context switching required — frequency and degree — increases.

  • Increased time required for individuals to refocus, re-immerse, catch-up, re-locate and change tools and roles between different teams and associated work, reduces the MTM productivity benefits of the dissemination of best practices and optimisation of resource management.
  • Increased scale and/or disparity of information received by individuals reduces time to process, incubate, reflect and integrate new information, limiting the MTM learning and knowledge transfer benefits.

How to know when multiple team memberships is too much?

Understanding whether employees are overcommitted due to multi-teaming and the performance of individuals, teams and the organisation are being eroded, relies on the organisation actively measuring and understanding whether their employee’s experience aligns with those of high performing teams.

Google’s Project Aristotle recent extensive study of teams found that the most important characteristic for successful teams is psychological safety, a setting “in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture where managers provide air cover and create safe zones so employees can let down their guard.” High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It proposes:

“There’s no team without trust. Emotions of trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources. We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.”

Project Aristotle also highlighted the importance of team members getting things done on time and meeting expectations, also having structure and clarity.

As The Overcommitted Organisation concludes, successful multi-teaming requires a significant investment of time and resources to get it right. Time for teams and new members to develop trust based relationships. Time for individuals and teams to think, reflect, absorb and learn from a diversity of information and knowledge. Time for individuals to meet the obligations of all of their teams, and resources that enable this through coordination and navigation of competing priorities and risks associated with multi-teaming.

Originally published on LinkedIn on March 2, 2018.

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