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Lessons about managing teams

Steve Kelman

I have expanded this year the material on managing teams for my introductory management course for Kennedy School master’s students. I introduced two classes on team management two years ago, expanded it last year to three and now have raised it to five.

This is partly because the subject has a mixture of good available in-class experiential exercises and a rich scholarly literature, a nice mixture for a course. But it is mainly because teams, often cross-functional teams, are becoming more and more important for making increasingly complex organizational decisions or producing organizational products and services.

We started the five classes with an in-class exercise called Desert Survival, set up by a DVD describing a group of travelers whose light plane crashes in the Sonora Desert in Arizona and who must figure out the relative importance of various of the items they have available at the crash site for surviving in the desert. Students first solve the problem individuals and are then divided into teams of five to make the rankings as a group. Individual student and team answers are then compared with the prioritization provided by an expert on surviving in the desert.

It’s a rich exercise, but let me give four headlines.

In every one of the teams in my class, the teams did better as a group solving the problem than the average individual on the team did. Those who believe that “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” are, at least sometimes, incorrect:  most individuals in the class did worse on their own than as part of a group.

Second, when I had students answer questions individually, the average of their scores was lower than the same students answering the questions in groups. So teams beat out the “wisdom of crowds,” which has been getting a lot of attention recently – the deliberative process of the team produced better results than mere averaging of the variety of individual results.

Third, greater initial opinion diversity among the individual team members produced better team results. (We measured this by plotting the standard deviation of scores of the individual members of each team – a measure of opinion diversity – against team results.)  Getting access to diverse opinions and knowledge is the central reason to make decisions as a team, and, consistent with this prediction, greater diversity of opinion improved team results.

Finally, while 100 percent of my student teams did better than the average individual in the team, this is true for a still large but noticeably smaller 81 percent of student classes that have done this exercise in the past. Since this exercise has been done almost exclusively at business schools, one way of thinking about these results – something I find appealing, though these results hardly prove it – is that public-service oriented students at the Kennedy School do better at a cooperative exercise such as working in a team than more competitive, individualistic students at business schools. Interesting if true.

Posted on Nov 01, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Mon, Nov 5, 2012 alan

I don't think your experiment has a big enough crowd to refute the "wisdom of the crowds" talk. In addition to just scale, it doesn't capture the interaction effects over time which the "wisdom of the crowds" folks cite. Very intersting, though. Why a team of five? At what point do the transaction costs of sharing information in that setting become too high? Ten people? Just curious.

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