Assigning employees to multiple projects is a significant investment, but organizations pay a higher price when they neglect the costs in pursuit of benefits.
A senior executive we’ll call Christine is overseeing the launch of Analytix, her company’s new cloud-based big-data platform, and she’s expected to meet a tight go-live deadline. Until two weeks ago, her team was on track, but it has since fallen behind schedule. Her biggest frustration: Even though nothing has gone wrong with Analytix, her people keep getting pulled into other projects.
Across the world, senior managers and team leaders are increasingly frustrated by conflicts arising from what we refer to as “multiteaming” — having their people assigned to multiple projects simultaneously. But given the significant benefits of multiteaming, it has become a way of organizational life. It allows groups to share individuals’ time and brainpower across functional and departmental lines. It also increases efficiency and provides pathways for knowledge transfer.
As clear as these advantages are, the costs are substantial and need to be managed. Organizations open themselves up to the risk of transmitting shocks across teams when shared members link the fates of otherwise independent projects.
Individual employees pay a big price as well. They often experience stress, fatigue and burnout.
Over the past 15 years, we’ve studied collaboration in hundreds of teams. By carefully observing people during various stages of project-driven work, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about multiteaming.
Even though assigning employees to multiple projects at once is not new, the practice is especially widespread today. In a survey of more than 500 managers in global companies, 81 percent of those working on teams worked on more than one concurrently.
Why is multiteaming practically ubiquitous? For several reasons.
First, organizations must draw on expertise in multiple disciplines to solve many complex problems. Second, with crowded markets and reduced geographic and industry barriers, organizations now face greater pressure to keep costs down and stretch resources. Third, organizational models are moving away from hierarchical, centralized staffing to give employees more choice in their projects and improve talent development, engagement and retention.
We’ve identified several ways that both team and organizational leaders can reduce the costs of multiteaming and better capitalize on its benefits.
PRIORITIES FOR TEAM LEADERS
Coordinating members’ efforts and promoting engagement and adaptability are the key challenges for leaders. Focusing on those goals early will help you establish stronger relationships, reduce coordination costs, ease the friction of transitions, ward off political skirmishes and identify risks. Here’s how to do it:
Launch the team well to establish trust. When multiteaming, people tend to be hyperfocused on efficiency and are less inclined to share personal information. If you don’t engineer personal interactions for them, chances are they’ll be left with an anemic picture of their teammates. Make sure team members spend some time in the beginning getting to know their colleagues.
Map everyone’s skills. Figure out the full portfolio of capabilities that each person brings to the project. Make sure everyone knows how each teammate contributes. This increases the chances that members will learn from one another.
Manage time across teams. Talk about everyone’s competing priorities upfront. By identifying crunch periods across projects, you can revamp deadlines or plan on spending more hands-on time yourself at certain points.
Create a learning environment. Learning is supposed to be a major benefit of multiteaming — but it often gets crowded out by time pressures. You can designate team members from different functions to co-lead parts of the project so that they benefit from greater cross-contact. Similarly, pair a highly experienced team member with someone more junior and help them understand what both can gain from the exchange.
Boost motivation. On traditional teams, a strong sense of group identity motivates members. But leaders in multiteaming environments need to leverage more of an exchange relationship. The ability to get jazzed about a project flags when members spend only a small amount of time on it. Figure out what team members really value and frame the work in terms of those rewards.
Like Christine, you might be feeling the strain of sharing valuable talent with other teams. Before you reach the breaking point, take these steps to clarify and manage your interdependency with other teams.
PRIORITIES FOR ORGANIZATIONAL LEADERS
Keep a close eye on how — and how many — members are shared across teams. You can reduce organizational risk and boost innovation by following these steps:
Map and analyze human capital interdependence. Patterns of team overlap range from highly concentrated (a large proportion of members are shared by just a few teams) to highly dispersed (the sharing is spread across many teams).
Each pattern has its own implications for risk management. When a surprise problem jolts one team, the cry “All hands on deck” pulls shared members off their other teams — with disproportionately large effects on teams that have a concentrated overlap in members. When the overlap is more dispersed, the shock will be felt by more teams but to a lesser extent by each one.
When teams are similar in their tasks and culture, transitioning between them is relatively easy, so you can have a large amount of overlap. Transitioning across teams with different tasks or cultures should be kept to a minimum, however — it’s a bigger, costlier shift.
Keep a map of the links among teams in your organization through periodic updates from managers and team members. Once you’ve done this analysis, it’s time to address the shortcomings you’ve uncovered — which brings us to the next two steps.
Promote knowledge flows. Your goal is to establish knowledge transfer as a cultural norm. Highlight the benefits of sharing, and provide processes and technology to facilitate it.
Buffer against shocks. Knowing how teams are connected through shared membership allows you to anticipate where some shocks may be transferred and to design slack into the system to absorb them.
None of this is easy. You may need to establish processes that will allow you to track multiteaming more accurately across the organization. You may even need to create a new role to coordinate these efforts. And people may resist the increased oversight — it can feel like micromanagement to team leaders who are accustomed to having freer rein. Still, such investments are worthwhile; it’s more costly to allow the trade-offs of multiteaming to go unchecked. If you’re open about the problems you’re trying to solve with all this transparency, people are less likely to feel constrained by it and more likely to see the upside.
Multiteaming is a significant investment of time and effort. But organizations pay a much higher price when they neglect its costs in hot pursuit of its benefits.
Mark Mortensen is an associate professor and the chair of the organizational behavior area at INSEAD. Heidi K. Gardner is a distinguished fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession and faculty chair of the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School.
Copyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.