Collaboration at Cisco

I enjoyed the interview with John T. Chambers, CEO of Cisco, in Sunday’s New York Times (Business section page 2, by Adam Bryant).

When Bryant asked “How has your leadership style evolved over time?” Chambers said this:

I’m a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right. But that’s the style of the past. Today’s world requires a different leadership style–more collaboration and teamwork, including using Web 2.0 technologies.

And the final answer echoed this theme too: When asked “What’s changed in the last few years?” Chambers responded:

Big time, the importance of collaboration. Big time, people who have teamwork skills, and their use of technology. If they’re not collaborative, if they aren’t naturally inclined toward collaboration and teamwork…they’re probably not going to fit in here.

How Teams Work Together

I’ve just read a wonderful research article called “Team implicit coordination processes”.*  Most studies of how team coordinate have focused on planning and communication; these are both explicit coordination, meanint that everyone is consciously aware of what they’re doing, they’re trying to do it, and they’re talking about it.  The authors of this article claim that explicit coordination only explains relatively static teams, when the situation isn’t changing very rapidly.  Implicit coordination happens “when team members anticipate the actions and needs of their colleagues…and dynamically adjust their own behavior accordingly, without having to communicate directly with each other or plan the activity” (p. 164).

That’s exactly what goes on in a jazz ensemble or an improv theater group, the super-creative groups that I’ve spent years studying (see my book GROUP GENIUS).  Teams have to implicitly coordinate to handle rapidly changing environments when their tasks are highly interdependent; teams that are implicitly coordinating talk a lot less about what they’re doing and what they should do next.  (This reminded me of a conversation I had at Harvard recently with Professor Rob Huckman, who has studied surgical teams.  Surgeons say that in the best teams, no one is talking…that’s implicit coordination!)

Teams that have this down do four things: (1) each member provides task-relevant information even before they are asked for it; (2) team members share the workload without being asked; (3) everyone is monitoring the progress of the activity and the performance of their teammates; and (4) each person adapts behavior to what they expect the others will do.

The authors argue that implicit coordination can only work if the group creates an “emergent team-level knowledge structure” that they call a team situation model.  The model includes shared knowledge like the team’s goal and the roles of each participant.  Because of my own studies of social emergence, I agree when the authors claim that the situation model is “an emergent group property characterizing the team as a whole” (see my 2005 book SOCIAL EMERGENCE for more details).

*Ramon Rico, Miriam Sanchez-Manzanares, Francisco Gil, and Cristina Gibson.  2008.  “Team implicit coordination processes: A team knowledge-based approach.”  Academy of Management Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 163-184.

The Weakest Link

I am a big fan of collaboration. So when I teach college classes, I often put my students in groups, and give them assignments that they have to do in teams. And, I give the team one grade; everyone in the team gets the same grade.

A lot of my students hate this. We have very smart, high achievers here at Washington University, and they all have memories of working with less-able peers in high school. Of being stuck with a lazy partner, and having to do all of the work. So my students usually advocate grouping top performers with other top performers, and grouping the lazy lower achievers together.

If you’re a manager, your question is: how can I get the most out of my staff? Even after you fire the lowest performers, you’re still going to have a range of abilities and motivation levels. Should you mix everyone together, or keep the top performers together? It could be that spreading around the top talent raises everyone else’s level of performance–the lesser performers learn from the better performers, and they’re motivated to try to be just as good. Or, it could be that the lower performers drag the best down–the “weakest link” phenomenon.

Two researchers at the University of Wurzburg recently studied exactly this question.  Bernhard Weber and Guido Hertel reviewed 17 studies on what they call “inferior group members” or IGM for short.  These 17 studies included a total of 2,200 people.  Their conclusion?  IGMs work harder when they’re working with superior group members.

*Weber, B., & Hertel, G.  (2007). Motivation gains of inferior group members: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(6), 973-993.