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Why Large Teams Write Bad Songs

18 July 2012

Most people like the idea of teamwork. But does a team get the job done?  - Text by Geraldine Ling

Imagine if all of the top songwriters of our time, including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen, got together to write a song.

With such musical legends on board, one would think that the song produced would be epic. But chances are it won’t.

The truth is, large teams write bad songs.

They are often equally bad at coming up with other creative work, like poems or novels. Such tasks, says team effectiveness thought leader Richard Hackman, involve an emotional journey of sharing experiences unique to an individual. In a large group, members may compromise individual creativity to reach consensus.

And statistics reflect this reality of teams and lacklustre songwriting. A 2010 article published in the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis reported that 78% of the top Billboard songs were written by individuals or pairs.

So then, given that teams are often found in the Public Service, what are they good for?

First, you need to decide whether a team should be formed or not. Not all situations and tasks call for one.

As a guideline, teams should not be formed if all members are supposed to do the same type of work, or if one’s organisation has a high turnover rate. That said, however, there are some tasks that only a team can do, such as performing in a string quartet or carrying out a multi-party negotiation, says Hackman. A team should only be formed if a co-ordinated effort requiring different individual skills is needed to achieve a desired outcome. So a team should not compose a song together, but joint effort is certainly needed to produce a music album to be released and sold in the stores!

If, after everything has been considered, you have decided that it is in your department’s best interests to form a team, here are some tips:

Keep teams small

Although workload may be reduced with more members on the team, the complexity of co-ordination and communication required increases exponentially with size. The average size of work teams should ideally be four to five, says Harvard psychology professor Ruth Wageman.

If you are currently in a large team and think that its size hinders productivity, consider re-structuring the team into a smaller one.

If that is not possible, another idea would be to revamp the group into multiple, smaller teams – each performing different sub-tasks. Remember to ensure strong communication links are established among the various mini teams to ensure effective co-ordination.

Set team norms

To reduce conflict, it is important to first lay down a foundation of behavioural norms. This could be observing punctuality or withholding criticism during a brainstorming session.

Team norms should ideally be set by the group itself. To facilitate the process, ask members to come up with and agree on a set of five to seven behaviours.

If you are currently in a large team and think that its size hinders productivity, consider re-structuring the team into a smaller one.

Subsequently, guide the team to agree on how they will enforce the behavioural norms. If the norms are not enforced when they are “broken”, they become obsolete after a while, or may even be a cause for tension.

So before you form a team to take on your next task, stop and ask yourself: do you really need a team to perform the task? Or would you rather end up with a bad song?

Facilitating team effectiveness is an Organisation Development (OD) practice that can contribute to achieving successful organisational outcomes. Promoting the effective practice of such OD practices is the key focus of Centre for Organisation Development (Centre for OD), Civil Service College. For more information, email cscollege_COD@cscollege.gov.sg.

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