Fluid Teams and Fluid Tasks: The Impact of Team Familiarity and Variation in Experience

by Robert S. Huckman & Bradley R. Staats

Overview — In the context of team performance, common wisdom suggests that performance is maximized when individuals complete the same work with the same people. Although repetition is valuable, at least up to a point, in many settings such as consulting, product development, and software services organizations consist largely of fluid teams executing projects for different customers. In fluid teams, members bring their varied experience sets together and attempt to generate innovative output before the team is disassembled and its individual members move on to new projects. Using the empirical setting of Wipro Technologies, a leading firm in the Indian software services industry, this study examines the potential positive and negative consequences of variation in team member experience as well as how fluid teams may capture the benefits of variation while mitigating the coordination costs it creates. Key concepts include:

  • As organizations continue to depend on the output of teams, and teams, in turn, rely on members with varied prior experience, it becomes critical for teams to manage these differences and dependencies successfully.
  • If the most valuable assets of many companies are their employees, then organizations need to shift from only thinking about their project portfolio to also considering their employee-experience portfolio.
  • Managing employee-experience portfolios will require managers to consider the breadth of types of experience (e.g., customer, technology, etc.) captured across the members of a team as well as their familiarity with each other. Doing so may offer managers an important new lever for improving organizational performance.

Author Abstract

In this paper, we consider how the structures of tasks and teams interact to affect team performance. We study the effects of diversity in experience on a team's ability to respond to task changes by separately examining interpersonal team diversity (i.e., differences in experience across the entire team) and intrapersonal team diversity (i.e., whether individuals on the team are more or less specialized). We also examine whether team familiarity-team members' prior experience working with one another-helps teams to better manage challenges created by task changes and greater interpersonal team diversity. Using detailed project- and individual-level data from an Indian software services firm, we find that the interaction of task change with intrapersonal diversity is related to improved project performance, while the interaction of task change with interpersonal diversity is related to diminished performance. Additionally, the interaction of team familiarity with interpersonal diversity is related to improved project performance in some cases. Our results highlight a need for more nuanced approaches to leveraging experience in team management. Keywords: Experience, Knowledge, Software, Team Familiarity, Variation. 37 pages.

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