Looking to Actually Improve Workplace Productivity? Rethink How Your Teams Collaborate (i4cp login required)


Plan in-person meetings. Decide on consistent team members. Avoid having too many people on any one team.

When it comes to team success, you’ve probably heard these tried-and-true recommendations. But that conventional wisdom is wrong—or at least outdated.

New research from i4cp research analysts Rob Cross (who wrote the HBR cover story Collaborative Overload) and Katheryn Brekken tells a different story, that not only do 21st Century, high-performance teams look and act in distinct ways—but also that they are goldmines of untapped productivity.

Astonishing productivity gains (and losses)

CEOs have returned employees to the office in the name of productivity. Companies have reinforced  performance management programs in the name of productivity. Others have conducted layoffs, restructured, modified incentives and performance management processes, and more to eke out productivity improvements.

What we’ve discovered is that the impact of these changes may not compare to the potential by changing how the teams within your organization function.

In today’s world of work, teams have become the primary means by which value is created.  We all know this intuitively: many of us are on two or three formal teams and assigned to at least an additional informal teams.  Our entire days are spent collaborating in one form or another within teams. 

Despite this, organizations still manage performance principally at the individual employee level.  That’s not the case, however, with the high-performance organizations featured in i4cp’s latest research study.

These best-in-class organizations help form and support teams to work and collaborate in very precise ways—and the impact is significant.  One company projected a 54% improvement in profitability from raising the performance of its bottom quartile teams, simply to average.  Another realized a little over $500MM in economic impact from helping teams form and collaborate more precisely using practices identified in our research.

In fact, across over 1,400 organizations surveyed, we found organizations could increase productivity by an astonishing 39% by enabling their teams to work and collaborate more precisely.

To be sure, it’s not that traditional teaming models and frameworks are ineffective. Rather, the context in which employees operate has shifted dramatically from the time when these models and frameworks were formulated.

The Team Network Effect™

Earlier this year, we conducted a global study of more than 1,400 organizations—mostly from human capital functions, and primarily from organizations with more than 1,000 employees—to better understand what drives team effectiveness. The quantitative study was combined with over 200 interviews, several in-depth case studies, and the deep understanding of collaboration patterns and network science by our research lead and internationally renowned thought leader, Rob Cross.

Here’s what we found:

  • Regardless of whether they meet in-person, in a hybrid environment, or virtually, the most effective teams employ precise collaborative practices to improve their relationships within the team and across the enterprise via their networks.
  • These teams are also more intentional in avoiding ineffective patterns of collaboration that plague—and hurt performance of—eight out of ten teams. The good news is that replicating the high performing practices and avoiding the dysfunctional patterns of collaboration does not require a massive undertaking. Instead, outcomes are a result of equipping teams and team leaders with practices that when applied improve productivity and positively impact organizational performance.

We are calling this discovery the Team Network Effect™—the employment of precision collaboration—intentional behaviors that create high-quality connections that generate efficiencies and energy.

These behaviors improve team effectiveness and ultimately the organization’s market performance.

Estimated improvement in team performance

One problem: most teams [woefully] underperform.

A major finding of this study on team effectiveness is that most underperforming teams suffer from a common ailment: collaborative dysfunction.

In fact, our research showed that eight in 10 teams fell into one or more of six dysfunctional patterns of collaboration that dramatically impacted performance.

The full report, available exclusively to i4cp members (along with exclusive tools, case studies, and other insights), goes into detail on the six critical dysfunctions that stifle team performance and make recommendations on how companies can unravel such dysfunctions.

The Six Forms of Collaborative Dysfunctions

But by far, the #1 dysfunction teams face is priority overload—situations created when too many uncoordinated requests are coming into a team.  And the #1 dysfunction hurting team performance is misalignment— when factions in a team create tensions and undue conflict. 

The important part of this research is that it enables leaders to both diagnose one or more dysfunctions their teams might be drifting into and take action to correct the underlying drivers of this dysfunction.

In short, an entirely more productive process than the typical knee jerk reaction of blaming the leader in one form or another.

Big productivity improvements. Minimal investment.

Though most teams suffer from dysfunction and lost productivity, the encouraging news is that improvements do not require a massive investment of time or money.

Rather, gains are accomplished by helping teams work and collaborate differently in today’s hybrid world of work. This may entail:

  • The patterns of collaboration within teams – top quartile teams are distinguished by specific collaborative practices and ways of working internally to avoid drift” into one or more dysfunctional patterns.
  • The quality of connections within teams – the quality of connections in these networks is critical to performance and can be architected into the flow of work to produce highly effective teams.
  • The external collaborations that promote effectiveness and efficiency – top performing teams connect into the ecosystem in six ways that enable them to derive benefits of scale that are often lost in transition to more agile ways of working.

Many of the conventional assumptions about team performance from the 20th Century simply do not apply to today’s modern workforce. Taking a reimagined approach, and putting into practice even a few of the recommendations outlined in i4cp’s The Team Network Effect™, will realize significant productivity gains. With a modern workforce, are you sure you want to keep forming and managing teams the way your company has always done them?

Exclusive access: i4cp members have broader access to the full set of key findings, recommendations, case studies, and tools to better understand and implement other changes that will lead to precision collaboration.

Not a member?

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