Project teams can fly or founder on the demographic attributes of team members and the fractures they can create. Here’s how to recognize the potential for division, and how to respond in time when team fractures do arise.
Companies create diverse teams to take on their most complex challenges — tasks across boundaries, functions and geographies that no single department or function could accomplish. Yet guiding these diverse teams to success requires some counterintuitive management practices. In particular, team leaders should focus on tasks at the early stages, rather than on interpersonal relationships, and then switch to relationship building when the time is right.
In a recent study of teams at large companies, we found that diverse membership of teams and task forces is becoming the order of the day. Take Nokia Corp., which frequently brings together disparate talent from different departments among its businesses around the globe, while at the same time partnering with many external suppliers. Or consider the British Broadcasting Corporation, which routinely creates huge teams for events, such as the production and broadcast teams for the 2006 FIFA World Cup and the 2008 Olympic Games. These typically involve groups of more than 100 people, a high proportion of whom are not full-time employees. Team members often represent more than 15 different nationalities, with skill sets ranging from electrical work to intellectual property, from scheduling to production. The BBC’s teams also face the daunting challenge of a one-shot deal for which execution has to be right the first time.
The challenges that Nokia and the BBC face are by no means unique. Between 2004 and 2006, we partnered with executives from 15 large European and American companies to study 55 of their teams. What was most striking about these teams was their sheer size and complexity. The diversity of Nokia’s design team — with men and women of many nationalities and with a wide range of ages, representing multiple functions from many different businesses — was repeated in companies in many different industries from across the globe. Companies in the media industry (such as Reuters Group PLC and the BBC), in telecommunications (such as France Telecom and Canadian wireless giant Rogers Communications Inc.) and in banking (such as Royal Bank of Scotland and Lehman Brothers Inc.) all employ large and diverse teams to attack some of their most difficult problems. Many of the teams in the study numbered more than 50 people, all had more than three nationalities represented and most brought in people from several functions and businesses.