Sadly, “In 1985 about half of Americans said they had a close friend at work; by 2004, this was true for only 39%,” according to Wharton professor, Adam Grant. Further, “We are not only “bowling alone” suggests Stanford professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, we are increasingly ‘working alone.’” Yet we still long for meaningful work and a sense of belonging – and organizations that support those very human desires are more likely to spur high performance and innovation.
What’s the secret, then, to cultivating close-knit relationships in an organization? It’s something that groups as different as Gore, Saddleback Church, and Quantified Self have built into how they operate. Participants work in one or more small groups or teamsthat are networked within the larger organization. In effect, they are structured as, what retired general Stanley McChrystal dubs a Team of Teams.
In our increasingly complex, yet connected and disruptive world, “adaptability trumps hierarchy” according to McChrystal, and networked teams are most likely to act swiftly and aptly to capture opportunities and solve problems well. Few organizations are structured this way, despite ample proof that it is one of the best ways to optimize talent and innovation.
Tip: We are most likely to stay highly engaged and happy in organizations that:
• Operate as small groups that are tight-knit, cross-functional and sometimes self-organized.
• Have enough rules (carrots and sticks) and structure to enable us to use best talents together on meaningful work.
• Encourage us to propose mutually beneficialchanges in those rules and structure.
• Spur our shared learning, camaraderie and mutual support.
Acknowledge Negative Emotions
The creator of Wharton’s popular “Success Course,” G. Richard Shell notes, “When it comes to gaining wisdom, negative emotions have a place of honor right next to positive ones.” “The price of enlightenment seems to be suffering, not smiling.” Since anyone radically different from you inevitably won’t act right (like you), you get a priceless opportunity to see your biggest hot buttons as you react. You can practice turning moments of potential miscommunication or friction into opportunities to speak to each other’s good intent — and feel the satisfaction of “doing what you should be doing.”
Tip: When you most want to smash someone in the face or flee the room, remember this irony. Cooling off someone’s anger can actually draw that person closer to you. See five ways to keep your cool when under fire.
Experience The Freedom of Agreed-Upon Constraints
Be part of a regular tribe that is both bounded and unbounded. That means they have agreed-upon ground rules, from the structure of their meetings to the explicit, mutually beneficial ways they share and collaborate. Yet they are also able to experiment, learn faster from each other, propose changes in how they operate and evolve.
Such groups are as diverse as Quantified Self, Rotary International, Y Combinator and Mastermind groups. “In a world of constant flux where our skill sets have a shorter life,” we can thrive as we hone our capacity for flexibility and play in situations that are both bounded and unbounded, according to A New Culture of Learning co-authors John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas.
Nimble Teams Rarely Have More Than Seven Members
To reduce stress and confusion in battle, “fire teams” – the basic Marine combat fighting unit – shrunk from twelve to four during World War II, according to James H. Webb. Navy Seals learned, through hard experience, that four-person combat teams perform best. The Roman army had eight guys to a fighting unit, “the number that could fit into a tent,” notes former Twitter Engineering SVP Chris Fry, who also found that leaders who have too many teams to form become bottlenecks.
McKinsey’s consulting teams have one engagement manager and three other members. News aggregator app, Pulse News, discovered that misunderstandings and friction flared as they grew to just eight members and until they divided into three teams. Even average U.S. restaurant reservations are for a party of four. “Less is best,” believes Intuit CEO Brad Smith.
“Big teams suck,” writes Stanford business professor Bob Sutton. “Seven is a ‘magical number’ because people can only hold ‘seven, plus or minus two’ numbers in short-term memory,” according to psychologist George Miller.
For most tasks, “four to six members is the best team size,” suggests Sutton, citing the research of J. Richard Hackman, who spent nearly 50 years studying team performance: “Interpersonal friction increases ‘exponentially as team size increases. “As a group expands further, each member devotes more time to coordination chores and less on doing the work.” Create pods or teams of four to seven members in your organization and encourage people to be on more than one team. Keep teams together for at least six months and “ideally a year or more,” says Fry, “so they can optimize and extend their capabilities.” That’s where the power of maximum mutuality kicks in. See Five Smart Tribe Accelerators to keep your team on a successful path.
To boost your motivation to organize small groups, know this: We seem more attractive in a group than we do apart. That’s the Cheerleader Effect.
Tip: Even as we are surrounded by social networks, we still put the most effort into communicating within small circles.
“The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.” ~ William James