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J. Jay Gerber Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations Leigh Thompson

Team design demands a structured approach

Prof. Leigh Thompson combines theory and practice in cutting-edge research that reveals how to improve collaboration

4/11/2007 - The whole may not be greater than its parts when it comes to teams, says Leigh Thompson, author of Making the Team: A Guide for Managers (3rd ed.), due to be published in June by Prentice Hall.

“In the best circumstances, teams provide insight, creativity and cross-fertilization of knowledge in a way that a person working independently cannot,” says Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations. “In the wrong circumstances, teamwork can lead to confusion, delay and poor decisions.”

Providing a systematic approach to merging theory and practice to empower managers with the tools for careful team selection, Thompson’s text highlights problems that often derail the effort. Using cutting-edge research on groups combined with practical management principles, she debunks common myths about team effectiveness, causes for failure and ideal logistics for team dynamics and offers strategies and assessments to improve performance. The book’s three main parts address the gamut from the basics of team design to internal and external dynamics that influence managerial strategy to help embrace innovation while identifying the accurate drivers for team success — and failure. Topics such as effectively managing interpersonal conflict to avoid dysfunctional group behavior offer keen insights into the perils of poorly designed teams. The book’s content is thought provoking, even occasionally controversial, says Thompson. For example, a chapter on creativity indicates the ways that teams actually can hamper innovation under certain circumstances.

“Much of the book’s research is based on a large database of Web surveys of managers and executives, who are or were enrolled in the Leading High-Impact Teams executive education program at Kellogg,” says Thompson, who is director of the Kellogg Team and Group Research Center (KTAG), a research-based scholarly community that takes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and improving the performance of teams in organizations.

While teams have been popular at some companies since the 1980s, Thompson says team thinking needs to evolve to keep up with the times. “This point is brought home even more clearly in light of research findings that 50-70 percent of all teams and team-based initiatives fail to produce the desired results,” she says.

Teams now face heightened competition, technological advances and globalization. Customer service also has grown more important as business has moved from a transactional view of clients to a relational one, says Thompson.

“The role of managers has shifted in the information age,” she notes. “They are no longer primarily responsible for gathering information from employees working below them and then making command decisions based on this information. Their new role is to identify the resources that will best implement the team’s objectives and then facilitate the coordination of those resources.”

Helping managers succeed in this, Thompson’s book considers teams from every angle, and provides some surprises. A chapter on creativity, for instance, indicates that teams are not as creative as managers think they are. Fortunately, those lacking can find answers in Making the Team.

“We have uncovered some non-obvious ways to enhance creative teamwork,” says Thompson.