Sand Dune Teams

In my 2007 book Group Genius, I showed that the most innovative organizations were improvisational and team-focused. Early in the book, I tell how W. L. Gore developed the Elixir brand of guitar strings, with a team that formed spontaneously and unofficially. In Chapters 8 and 9, I describe many companies that create temporary, cross-disciplinary teams to foster innovation (I call them “innovation labs”).

Now, I’ve just learned that the leading guru of teams research, J. Richard Hackman, believes that these improvisational, emergent, and fluid teams are the wave of the future.* He calls them “sand dune teams” to indicate that they are impermanent. His key points echo my 2007 book:

  1. These teams are best for “fast-changing contexts in which surprise is the rule”.
  2. They often emerge in emergencies (There’s a lot of research showing the role of improvisation in emergency and disaster response; in Group Genius, I begin Chapter 2 by telling a story about the 1980 Naples earthquake).
  3. They do best when they operate in organizational units of 30 people or less, so that “unitwide norms and routines” can be shared.

Hackman argues that we need a lot more research on these teams:

We have not yet identified the minimum conditions needed for sand dune teams. We don’t know what additional features and technologies would help them manage themselves well. Nor do we know whether such teams are feasible when their members are not colocated.

I agree that this is an exciting topic for future research in organizational behavior. I’m not thrilled by the “sand dune team” metaphor, however, because it suggests that the teams form in response to external forces largely outside of their control. My own research suggests, in contrast, that there’s an internal logic to the improvisational and emergent processes whereby such teams form; and, that organizations can take concrete steps to foster the effective formation of such emergent teams.

I look forward to future studies on this topic published by Professor Hackman.

*Hackman, J. R. 2011. Managing work by ever-shifting teams. The HBR Agenda 2011, p. 11.