Give the Gift of Time

If only HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive.
—Lew Platt, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard

Everyone is so busy these days, overwhelmed by complexity and uncertainty, that it’s hard to know what to do or who to talk to in order to accomplish daring, and unexpectedly awesome initiatives. And so we create structure, process and teams to solve specific tasks or projects. But team composition, proximity, and facilitation matter a great deal in terms of how productive they eventually become.

London Business School conducted an interesting study in which they asked 1,543 people to answer a bunch of questions about the composition and behavior of the teams they worked on. It turns out that some of the very characteristics that define modern professional teams, are the same characteristics that undermine their success. These trending characteristics include:

Bigger teams: Teams are swelling in size to be (or appear to be) more inclusive, gain greater stakeholder buy-in and leverage more expertise. Teams of 20 people or more is increasingly common, and technology is enabling a good part of swelling headcount. But research from Bob Sutton on scaling excellence demonstrates that honest and engaged collaboration decreases after team size exceeds about 8 people.

Diverse teams: Again, technology enabled, globally dispersed diverse teams are growing rapidly. And with good reason since the ability to leverage expertise throughout the globe is increasingly a powerful component of competitive advantage. But deeply engaged, open collaboration starts with trust. And trust starts with the personal understanding that comes from cultural and emotional fluency. We might get technically proficient collaboration across cultural boundaries, but richer collaboration requires the bedrock of trust. I once met a guy named Marcus who was based in Germany and ran an IT services group, which was based in Silicon Valley. Several times a year Marcus would fly to California for no other reason than to spend time with his team, chatting, having meals, talking about work, but also interacting on a human and personal level. He calls these trips “The Flying Handshake.”

Educated teams: According to the study, teams are increasingly comprised of people with higher and higher education levels. And it turns out, the higher the education among the team members, the more likely the team may devolve into petty arguments. One key to overcoming this obstacle is to require teams to have not only task goals, but also relationship-oriented goals.

The study cites some constructive interventions to help boost the effectiveness and ingenuity of teams, as well as to eradicate “fault lines” within teams, but one leadership trait in particular has a powerful effect in scaling excellence: giving the gift of time.

Company cultures in which leaders regularly give their time to listen to emerging problems, and advise team members of who they might talk to within the company to accelerate solutions is a defining characteristic of successful cultures. Specifically, the study cites Nokia’s cultural tendency for leaders to sit with individual team members and point them in the direction of people throughout the organization which they believe will accelerate results and strengthen inter-departmental collaboration.