Build 'Scaffolds' to Improve Performance of Temporary Teams

Many critical tasks are performed by teams created on the fly, but lack of stability can hinder their performance. Amy Edmondson and Melissa Valentine use the idea of scaffolds to produce greater collaboration and efficiency on temporary teams.
by Roberta Holland

"Four minutes," a triumphant Amy C. Edmondson exclaims as she arrives at her Harvard Business School office, clutching a bike helmet and explaining that her commute is 10 minutes faster by bicycle than by car. Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at HBS, knows a thing or two about efficiency.

But it's one thing to make yourself more efficient, quite another to make a team more efficient, and still another when that team's membership is in constant flux. With short-term teams assembled on the fly becoming increasingly common in today's workplaces, Edmondson and a colleague set out to investigate how fluid teams can work better.

In their paper Team Scaffolds: How Mesolevel Structures Enable Role-Based Coordination in Temporary Groups, Edmondson and lead author Melissa A. Valentine show how a very minimal structure can lead to greater collaboration and efficiency on a temporary team. What they call a team scaffold is fixed while individual team members flow through the structure.

“The big 'aha' was how very little structure this is”

The paper, published in the March-April 2015 edition of Organization Science, focuses on the redesign of a city hospital's emergency department around temporary teams called pods. The low-cost redesign led to dramatic improvements, both qualitatively and quantitatively, including a 40 percent reduction in how long a patient would remain in the ED before being discharged or admitted. The hospital, located in the southeastern United States, was an early adopter of a team-focused structure that many emergency departments are now implementing.

The research showed that temporary teams mimic the behaviors of more permanent teams, which have definitive boundaries around a group of roles, a clear goal, interdependent tasks, and stable, appropriate composition, Edmondson says. "Here we say we've got only the minimal version of those four factors-just a whisper of those things-and yet we get an awful lot of benefit."

Performance of temporary teams can be improved with light
structure—much like how scaffolds are used. ©

Prior research makes clear the importance of team stability, yet that's not always possible when an organization must work around the clock with overlapping shifts.

Given more and more dynamism in the modern workplace, "my interest started to be, how do you have effective teamwork when you can't have the traditional structural features of effective teams, [and so] I shifted my emphasis from teams to 'teaming,'" Edmondson says.

Valentine shared that interest in "messy" teams, making it the focus of her dissertation for the Health Policy (Management) doctoral program at HBS. (Edmondson chaired her dissertation committee.)

Prior to the redesign, the hospital used ad hoc groupings in the emergency department—any available nurse would triage a patient, then return the patient's chart for any available resident, who would then leave the chart for any available attending physician. The nurses did not know which doctor was working on which patient, and vice versa, which led to inefficiencies and a lack of accountability to one another. Schisms between the professional groups also hampered communication.

The redesign divided the ED into four pods, which were essentially bays with the necessary equipment to treat any type of patient. One senior or attending physician, one or two residents, and three nurses were assigned randomly to a pod at the start of their shifts. Patients were assigned consecutively to the four pods, with each pod having ultimate responsibility for its queue of patients. Because of the staggered and differing shifts, the entire team membership could changeover in as little as five hours.

The qualitative data showed better coordination between the pod members because they were co-located, making it easy to know who was on the team. It increased communication, follow-up, and the setting of mutual priorities, especially since the pod members were collectively responsible for getting the patients through the ED.

"The big 'aha' was how very little structure this is," Edmondson says. "We still have no assigned membership to specific teams over time. I think it speaks to the subtle interpersonal challenges we face trying to catch and work with relative strangers, and that even those small moments of hesitation or miscommunication matter."

Pod Wars

While the scaffolds helped break down barriers between professional groups, they created new, albeit temporary, affinity groups to some extent, triggering competition between the teams, which the staff referred to as "the pod wars." No one wanted to be stuck in the slowest pod, and other pods didn't tend to help you out if yours was bogged down, the staff interviews revealed. "People were only affiliated with their pod for four or eight hours, and despite how temporary their team memberships were, they were still competitive with one another," says Valentine, who after earning her PhD from Harvard in 2013 joined Stanford University as an assistant professor of management science and engineering.

Valentine says one caveat of the quantitative improvement is that the hospital was not performing as well as its peers before the redesign. Although not every workplace will see such dramatic improvement, the research shows how powerful a tool grouping people deliberately, even if temporary, can be for managers. In other research, Valentine studied four other hospitals that implemented team scaffolds in their emergency departments with less success, which is the basis for an upcoming paper. The city hospital in the joint research with Edmondson had a robust change process, getting a lot of input from staff and buy-in, and used a pilot pod to train staff. One other hospital had a decent change process and bounded groups, but did not assign the pod ultimate responsibility for the patient flow, which hampered the pod acting as a team, Valentine says.

While a hospital may be a natural setting for team scaffolds, Edmondson and Valentine see other applicable sites.

Many large, global companies are trying to enable better lateral coordination to solve client issues more efficiently. "Just the designation that you're part of this temporary group can eliminate some of those bureaucratic layers where the coordination between people laterally is harder than it needs to be," Edmondson says.

Valentine was one of the authors of a Stanford paper on crowdsourcing teams to handle more complex projects, applying many of the ideas of team scaffolds. She has also incorporated the research into one of her courses, with students creating e-books in 48 hours through crowdsourcing on a team scaffold platform. While the hospital's pod members were physically in the same area, Valentine notes that co-location can be virtual in the case of crowdsourcing, using chat rooms, shared folders, or shared websites.

"There's more complex work that really requires this teaming on the fly, and the social technologies make it more possible to find and coordinate with each other," Edmondson says.

About the Author

Roberta Holland is a writer based in Boston.

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    • John Carr
    • Senior Partner, CarrGroup Consulting
    It is interesting that you use the term "scaffolding." This is an essential element in most construction work where teams are often built and rebuilt several times a day. They can included members of a set ( laborers, electricians) or members from several sets, steel workers, crane operators, engineers, architects, clerks). It might be that the methodology you have developed could be applied in construction to help improve what can be a very complicated process.
    • Camille Smith
    • Leadership Coach, Work In Progress Coaching
    This kind of effectiveness can be further accelerated when team members know each others strengths, work preferences and styles of communication.
    • Balachandran T S
    • Senior General Manager, Bosch LtD.
    Impromptu random grouping of very short term teams, even teams for a few hours only but with domain, hierarchy and responsibility clarity coupled with fairness in balancing of work load will make the teams function effectively ... When multiple teams are doing similar tasks, fairness in balancing of work loading needs to be built in the process itself for teams to be competitive & motivated ..
    The importance of organizing the team into a cohesive unit is well brought out even if it is temporary. Team expects clear direction on the roles they need to perform lest it will dissipate into unwieldy units. Example of Pod is brilliant.
    • Carl Parks
    • Learning & OD Consultant
    The overarching idea of "scaffolding" is an accessible means for enhancing productivity, as aformentioned. But, the main nuance will be in aligning the principles of scaffolding, within an individual organization's infrastructure. If intergrated, it will by no means be a one size fits all solution, and operational standards regarding social group work/think must be applied to increase/maintain bottom line collaborative team efforts and results (over-time).
    • AIM
    • DSV, KOC
    Amy & Melissa,

    There are other studies that suggest different results:

    From "Give & Take" by Adam Grant:

    In one study, professors Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano wanted to know whether surgeons get better with practice. Since surgeons are in high demand, they perform procedures at multiple hospitals. Over a two-year period, Huckman and Pisano tracked 38,577 procedures performed by 203 cardiac surgeons at 43 different hospitals. They focused on coronary artery bypass grafts, where surgeons open a patient's chest and attach a vein from a leg or a section of chest to bypass blockage in an artery to the heart. On average, 3% of patients died during these procedures.
    When Huckman and Pisano examined the data they discovered a remarkable pattern. Overall, the surgeons did not get better with practice. They only got better at the SPECIFIC HOSPITAL where they practiced. For every procedure they handled at a given hospital, the risk of patient mortality dropped by 1%. But the risk of mortality stayed the same at other hospitals. The surgeons could not take their performance with them. They were not getting better at performing coronary artery bypass grafts. They were becoming more familiar with particular nurses and anesthesiologists, learning about their strengths and weaknesses, habits and styles. This familiarity helped them avoid patient deaths, but it did not carry over to other hospitals. To reduce the risk of patient mortality, the surgeons needed RELATIONSHIPS with SPECIFIC surgical team members.

    ...In investment banks, security analysts conduct research to produce earnings forecasts and make recommendations to money management firms about whether to buy or sell a company's stock. Star analysts carry superior knowledge and expertise that they should be able to use regardless of who their colleagues are. As investment research executive Fred Fraenkel explains: "Analysts are one of the most mobile Wall Street professions because their expertise is portable. I mean, you have got it when you are here and you have got it when you are there. The client base does not change. You need your Rolodex and your files, and you are in business."

    To test this assumption, Boris Groysberg studied more than a 1000 equity & fixed income security analysts over 9 year period at 78 different firms. The analysts were ranked in effectiveness by thousands of clients at investment management institutions based on the quality of their earnings estimates, industry knowledge, written reports service, stock selection and accessibility and responsiveness. The top three analysts in each of 80 industry sectors were ranked as stars, earning between $2M & $5M. Groysberg and his colleagues tracked what happened when the analysts switched firms. Over the 9 year period, 366 analysts - 9% - moved, so it was possible to see whether the stars maintained their success in new firms.

    Even though they were supposed to be individual stars, their performance was not portable. When star analysts moved to a different firm, their performance dropped, and it stayed lower for at least 5 years. In the first year after the move, the star analysts were 5% less likely to be ranked first, 6% less likely to be ranked second, 1% less likely to be ranked third, and 6% more likely to be unranked. Even 5 years after the move, the stars were 5% less likely to be ranked first and 8% more likely to be unranked. On average firms lost about $24M by hiring star analysts. Contrary to the beliefs of Fraenkel and other industry insiders, Groysberg and his colleagues conclude that "hiring stars is advantageous neither to stars themselves, in terms of their performance, nor to hiring companies in terms of their market value."----end of citation.

    Scaffolding behavior should not be encouraged as it is not in the best interest of the patient. Rather best interests of the patient should be preserved by encouraging team works with long lasting relationships among staff at large in a hospital.
    • Deepak Seth
    • Xerox
    It is interesting to see the term "scaffold" used to describe the minimal structures put in place to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of temporary teams.

    However, the term "scaffold" in its traditional usage also implies a sense of "temporariness" and "ugliness" (eyesores is how some describe them). Scaffolds are generally taken down once the building construction/renovation is complete.

    Does the use of the term "scaffold" in context of this article imply that these minimal structures are in the longer term to be replaced by some structures which are more lasting and more intrinsic to the organization/teams (rather than the scaffold which is temporary and extrinsic/external)?
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretqary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    With well planned efforts and the suggested strategies, role-based coordination can be achieved in temporary groups- teams which are not cohesive otherwise. The traditional well developed tried and tested team building exercises do not work with such groups and uncommon approaches have to be adopted so as to reach the success point.
    A hospital, as described, offers a natural setting for team scaffolds but this can work usefully under other scenarios as well. No doubt some amount of visionary thinking would be necessary for this.
    • Deepak Seth
    • IM Strategy Manager, Xerox
    An interesting follow up conversation with Prof. Edmondson on the topic is captured in my LinkedIn blogpost:

    "Scaffolds or Skeletons: What Does Your Team Need?"