As soon as an important task crosses their desks, the default reaction for countless managers is to form a team of the best, brightest, and most experienced employees in the office. The instinct is understandable: After all, it makes sense that the top talents at your disposal should be able to knock any project out of the park. However, simply assigning employees to a team is only the first step. Managers also need to consider how to organize and structure those teams in order to maximize their efficiency and ensure that the knowledge and experience of individual members is evenly distributed across the group.
Sri Kudaravalli, Samer Faraj, and Steven L. Johnson discuss how managers can build teams of expert employees that make the most of their members’ expertise in an article in the Harvard Business Review. They begin with a discussion of the two standard approaches to organizing teams of expert employees: either designating a leader or point person to be responsible for members of the team, or, on the other hand, keeping a flat hierarchy where employees manage themselves. Each approach comes with a set of advantages and disadvantages. For example, a more centralized structure built around a point person can effectively allocate resources but may reduce efficiency by acting as a bottleneck for certain tasks, while decentralized teams with flat hierarchies can facilitate greater creativity but tend to lack a sense of direction or purpose.
To identify the best approach for structuring teams, the authors conducted a study that included 484 employees across 71 software development teams at a large high-tech company in the U.S. during the “design and implementation” phases of projects. Somewhat surprisingly, they found that the most effective teams were the ones that adapted their structure to best suit their project phases: decentralizing the teams and expertise when identifying or developing solutions and then centralizing when putting those solutions into action. According to the authors of the article, teams that followed this model enjoyed higher coordination success, less team conflict, higher client satisfaction, increased team satisfaction, and other metrics.
For managers and other leaders in the office, this research helps to take the guesswork out of team organization. Instead of gambling on which template—centralized or decentralized—will be most effective, they can tailor the structure of teams to the phase of the project the team is working on. In doing so, manager can become experts in organizing their expert employees.