Jan 3, 2017

It’s commonly said you can do more as a team than you can alone. But when your potential team members work in different countries or departments, and don’t have much to do with each other day-to-day, creating a team can be more difficult than usual. Especially if you’re not officially their boss.

That’s why Professor Martha Maznevski is researching the performance dynamics of lateral teams. Lateral teams are distinguished by having members scattered across an organization in different locations or departments, such as global key account teams. She’s looking at how such team leaders – who might head a project that requires them to informally lead individuals involved in the project – can ignite traditional team-like behaviour in non-traditional lateral groups.

“We like teams because, when teams perform well, they are greater than the sum of their parts, not just equal to the sum of their parts,” she said. “But if you don’t have a team in the first place, how do you create interdependence among people and commitment to each other?”

Why be a team?

Maznevski’s findings reveal there are three main reasons why a leader might want all those involved across a lateral function to become a team, even when they aren’t working directly together:

  1. It raises the performance bar – When people share information and discuss their individual challenges and solutions, they might be able to determine some best practices that can be implemented by everyone involved in an area and improve their performance. But for information to be shared, people need to be talking to each other, or being more team-like;
  2. It creates one face for the customer – Once best practices are established and people start implementing them, they’ll all be doing things in similar ways. So, no matter who the customers interact with, they’ll have an experience that exemplifies the organization. That common understanding will also enable people to be more easily moved within the organization; and,
  3. You start to get creative – Once people are aligned in doing things the same way, they are also going to identify new ways to do things, and such innovation can make the organization stronger.

“Being a team means people are committed to doing things together, rather than just what they’re told to do individually. A leader can go to people one-one-one and influence them one-on-one, but that’s exhausting and not efficient. It also doesn’t create the synergy effects,” she said. “Most of the team research in the organizational behaviour area assumes there is already interdependence as a starting point. The research I’m doing looks at the processes a leader can initiate to create momentum and virtuous circles to get this interdependence, when it’s not already there.”

What makes a team?
The next step in her research is to explore some ways leaders can build the following team variables:

  • Group efficacy – This is the idea that group members appreciate and respect each other’s skills and contributions to the big picture, which is challenging when people on the project don’t know each member’s role;
  • Group identity – Group identity stems from people feeling that one person’s success is also their success, but that’s difficult when there aren’t group performance measures; and,
  • Trust – Trust relies on experiences so it’s difficult to build trust among people who don’t have experiences together.

Getting from here to there 

Maznevski will test out some exercises with real companies that desire to create high-performing lateral teams to see what does and doesn’t work. Some examples include:

Point them in the right direction

Have leaders tell potential team members who else on the team can answer their questions, rather than answering the questions themselves.

“It may be really tempting just to tell them what you know, but your job is to tell one person to call another person. You create more value by telling people who to call to get the answer than by giving them the answer,” she said.

Group activities

Send them together to a professional conference in a related field so they can begin to talk about their work.
“Don’t take them out for golf because that will only build social relationships. It won’t build on any idea of efficacy,” she said. “Help them to understand what each other knows – what they do in their job and what they contribute to a job.”

Fact-to-face discussions on small projects

Get the group together for a low-risk exercise, such as discussing how to share files.

“It’s all about encouraging people to interact more in low-risk activities and getting some experience with that because these low-risk experiences will help them to understand each other’s skills,” she said. “Then, over time, encouraging people to take more and more risk and to do more things together, which builds identity and trust.”

Maznevski will then assess whether the strategies are practical and lead to higher performance for both the leaders and individuals involved.

“You know when you’re there when people aren’t coming to you for information or solutions; they’re only coming to you for resources, or budget, or external connections,” she said. “Then the leader is free to start thinking about next steps.”

This research is part of a larger project with Assistant Professor Andreas Schotter on Boundary Spanning Leadership. Schotter is looking at what characteristics are needed in leaders, while Maznevski focuses on what needs to happen within global teams. She is already an expert on global teams and global leadership and has worked in more than 45 countries and with companies and leaders from most of the others. Her research was actually prompted by real questions she has received from organizations over the past 15 years.

Bridging the research-practice gap

Some of Maznevski’s findings on global teams have already been built into proposals for Ivey Executive Education programs and, once ready, her findings on lateral teams will be incorporated into future programs.

In addition to being a Professor of Organizational Behaviour in Ivey’s MSc and HBA programs, Maznevski will soon begin teaching Executive Education programs. She came to Ivey after 15 years with IMD (International Institute for Management Development) business school where she was previously MBA Program Director and Co-Director of the Program for Executive Development at different points in her tenure.

She is also Faculty Director for Ivey’s Executive Education and will be helping the Executive Education team to revamp the portfolio of programs and develop new programs and markets.

“We’ll be systematically building action learning into custom programs, as well as open programs, which is also a great opportunity to bring together research and practice,” she said. “For action learning in Executive Education, you have to be on the leading edge of knowledge. And while you’re implementing this knowledge, you’ll hear people ask questions. They’ll have problems and you’ll want to solve them.”

Maznevski is no stranger to Ivey and its people. She completed her PhD at Ivey. She also worked at IMD with Ivey professors emeriti Harry Lane, Joe DiStefano, and J. Peter Killing; former Ivey dean Adrian Ryans; Professor Mark Vandenbosch, Associate Dean of Programs, who has been a visiting professor at IMD; and numerous Ivey alumni.