# 9 - Working with Large Teams
this issue, you will find:
A discussion of working with larger and larger teams
A summary of the book Terms of Engagement: Changing the Way We
Change Organizations by Richard Axelrod
Pointers to additional information on this topic
TRENDS IN TEAM DEVELOPMENT: WHAT TO DO WITH LARGE TEAMS
you noticed?? Teams have been getting larger. This is a trend
we've noticed over the last five years or so, but in our practice,
it's become even more pronounced just in the last year.
used to be that the membership of a team, be it a staff of direct
reports, a task team, or a product development team, was around
eight to 12 people, and rarely more than 15. In their now-classic
research on high-performing teams, Katzenbach and Smith's definition
begins, "A team is a small number of people
and they observe that "virtually all the teams (that we know
about have) ranged between two and twenty-five people (The Wisdom
of Teams, p. 45)." Where a team is significantly larger than
this, it is typically comprised of a number of sub-teams whose
work is coordinated.
with the flattening of organization structures, the span of control
of many managers has become larger. One of our clients has over
twenty direct reports. Others may have fewer direct reports, but
they recognize the need to involve people from other parts of
the organization in order to influence outcomes, facilitate interdependencies,
or have access to data and input and include dotted line reports
in some or all of their staff and/or planning meetings. The scope
or complexity of a new product or the need to get a project done
faster may result in more people being assigned to a team. And
as the number of members increases, so does the complexity of
the interactions among them.
know from the enormous amount of research that has been done on
the characteristics and attributes of high-performing teams and
the highly consistent findings of these studies that, among other
things, their success is dependent to a large extent on the ability
of the members to work collaboratively. Collaboration requires
high trust, access to information, and a lot of communication
here is the problem: as numbers and complexity increase, it becomes
considerably more difficult for the members to establish relationships,
build and sustain trust, engage in conversations, and resolve
conflicts, all of which are known to be essential abilities of
effective teams. As teams get larger, the likelihood that they
will be able to work together effectively actually diminishes.
are several of the many reasons for this:
all of these things take time. More people equals more time,
and time is frequently the scarcest resource.
requires knowing others and being known to them such that there
is predictability and reliability of behavior. In a large group,
it's less likely that enough of the members will be able to
establish this level of knowing/trusting/predictability with
enough of the other members.
is difficult-to-impossible to make consensus-based decisions
in a large group. Without exploration of the ideas and positions
of all the members, a sense by them that their views have been
heard and considered, and the willingness to buy-in and move
forward in a common, agreed-to direction, teams quickly get
grid locked and/or sidetracked.
human, interactive side of teamwork is hard work, even with
a small group. Some folks have trouble sustaining the emotional
energy that's required to build the foundation for effective
of what we know about how to work with and increase the effectiveness
of teams has been derived from small group and interpersonal development
methodologies that have evolved over the past 50 years. Contributions
from Systems Theory have enhanced their applicability in work
recently, some new approaches to the development of large teams,
communities, and systems have emerged. Based on the premise that
the pace of this work can be accelerated and enriched by bringing
the relevant whole system into the room and involving them from
the start, these processes utilize a variety of approaches and
methods for engaging participants and developing commitment. There
are a variety of processes now being used, including Future Search
(Weisbord & Janoff), The Conference Model (Axelrod), Open
Space (Owen), and Real Time Strategic Change (Dannemiller &
is both encouraging and promising about these approaches is that
it now becomes possible to:
the right people on the team and in the room and do the work
of team start up and development in a timely and productive
and engage large and diverse groups of people in addressing
the issues and opportunities of organizations and in creating
solutions to problems
and combine the best and most useful features of what is know
about how to work with various levels of systems: individual,
interpersonal, small group, large group, and communities
the points of convergence, commonality, and consensus within
a large group, organization, or systems and develop strategies
for moving forward that have a high level of buy-in and commitment
excited by the results we've had using these methods with large
teams and extended staffs and invite you to discover how they
can help you with the limitations of small group processes when
faced with ever-expanding teams.
Terms of Engagement: Changing the Way we Change Organizations
by Richard H. Axelrod (Berrett-Koehler, 2000)
revolutionary at its inception, the change management paradigm
being used in most companies is no longer sufficient for today's
rapidly changing work environment. While it does include more
people in process-driven change, it frequently reinforces top-down
management, increasing cynicism and resistance. The change management
process is ineffective because it allows the few to decide for
the many, isolates leaders from organization members, separates
the design and implementation processes, and frequently creates
a parallel organization that cannot be reintegrated into the mainstream
when the change project is completed or abandoned.
his book Terms of Engagement, Richard Axelrod presents a powerful
new alternative to the change management process. This "engagement
paradigm" provides leaders with a practical, principle-based
strategy for creating successful change initiatives. At its heart
are four principles:
the circle of involvement
people to each other and to ideas
communities for action
the circle of involvement includes more people in the process
and widens people's perspective to help them let go of self-interest.
Expanding the number of people involved creates a critical mass
for change so that a small group is no longer in the position
of deciding for the large group.
people to each other creates links between people and builds
trust. When people connect with each other and to powerful ideas,
creativity and action are more likely.
communities for action sets up conditions in which people
care about the outcomes of what they do together. When we create
community, we move beyond being a group of people who may or may
not have personal connections to each other to developing a group
of connected people with the willingness to work together to accomplish
a meaningful goal.
democratic principles provides a set of norms that governs
people's behavior. Democratic principles can provide an ethical
foundation for the change process in business. They produce trust
and confidence in both the change process and those who are leading
you follow the four key principles and enter into an engagement
process in your organization, Axelrod says you can expect that:
will grasp the issues, become aligned around a common purpose,
and create new directions because they understand both the dangers
and the opportunities.
and energy will be produced to create a new future.
information and cooperation will replace organizational silos
because people are connected to the issues and to each other.
participation will quickly identify performance gaps and their
solutions, improving productivity and customer satisfaction.
will be sparked when people from all levels and functions, along
with customer, suppliers, and other stakeholders, contribute
their best ideas.
for future changes will increase as people develop the skills
and processes to meet not just current challenges, but future
challenges as well.
Axelrod is deeply committed to the concepts embodied in the engagement
paradigm, he suggests caution before you begin using this in your
organization. If something goes wrong, cynicism and doubt can
become epidemic. Organizations that cancel their engagement processes
in midstream are actually worse off than those that never start.
Because the engagement paradigm widens the circle of involvement,
it has huge visibility. Before starting, it is essential that
you understand the magnitude of what you are undertaking and ask
yourself if you have the willingness, resources, and the organizational
position to see it through to completion. The engagement paradigm
does have its risks, but if used carefully and wisely, your organization
can use this strategy to develop the capacity not only to address
current issues but to meet future challenges as well.
only thing missing from Axelrod's thorough explanation of the
engagement paradigm is a clear roadmap of how to actually proceed
through this process in a step-by-step way. For that you'll have
to go to The Conference Model by Emily and Richard Axelrod (Berrett-Koehler,
1999) or Large Group Interventions edited by Barbara Bunker and
Billie Alban (Jossey-Bass, 1997). Terms of Engagement is the first
book you'd want to read on this topic, though, as it provides
the foundation for how to create reputable, sustainable, and meaningful
Websites and Other Resources we've found about this topic include:
is the site for Open Space Technology.
is the site for Future Search.
is the site for The Conference Model.
In addition to the books mentioned at the end of the book summary
R.W. Real time strategic change. (1994). San Francisco:
Berrett- Koehler Publishers Inc.
H. Open space technology: A user's guide. (1997). San Francisco:
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
M. & Janoff, S. Future search: An action guide to finding
common ground in organizations and communities. (1995). San
Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.