How can you organize your team for optimal performance? Premium

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Should you follow a traditionally hierarchical organizing structure, or should you opt for the greater flexibility and autonomy of the liberated company model? So far, literature and practice offer as many examples as counter-examples in favor of each model. According to Sri Kudaravalli, professor at HEC Paris, the correct organization to adopt for optimal collective performance shouldn’t be decided in terms of tradition versus trend but instead by clearly distinguishing between different types of tasks and the coordination required by each.

Sri Kudaravalli joined HEC Paris in 2009. He teaches courses in management information systems and social media and innovation. He worked as a consultant for nearly a decade in the United States, then went on to obtain his Ph.D in information systems from the University of Maryland in 2010.


Aristotle taught that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a principle that holds true for teamwork in any setting, from the football field to the operating room to, of course, the office. But coordinating the different competency and skill levels to achieve the holy grail of a highly performing team is far from easy. It is a major leadership challenge. This is particularly true in the context of software development, because of its intellectual nature and the different kinds of expertise it requires. Factor in the difficulty of gathering and stabilizing requirements, the constant evolution of technologies and tools and the high level of abstraction of software, and the Standish 2015 report figure of a mere 29% success rate for IT projects sounds less surprising. “Some say that software development is one of the most complex endeavors undertaken by human beings,” says Sri Kudaravalli, who explored the collaborative mechanisms underlying team performance in that sector. Along with Samer Faraj and Steven L. Johnson, Kudaravalli studied 71 software development teams in a large IT firm in the U.S. to understand how the expertise of each team member was coordinated in practice. By establishing the distinction key modes of working in the IT project (conception and execution), they offer precious insights into the best ways to organize collaborative work.

Top-down vs decentralized models

In the software development industry, two schools of thoughts compete with one another when it comes to team work coordination: a centralized, top-down configuration and a more decentralized, horizontal one. The former relies on a key individual to lead the team and manage requirements gathering, client interaction, task delegation and so on. “The ‘chief programmer’ model, whereby engineers with experience in processes and tools are promoted to the role of team leader, was popular in the old days, and still is,” says Sri Kudaravalli. But in recent years, the limitations of this model have become more apparent: just one person overseeing a large team creates a bottleneck. “There is a limit to how much a single person can coordinate,” notes Kudaravalli. In response, over the past decade or so, more decentralized methods have emerged, with more flexibility in the delineation of roles and more collaborative decision making. A popular concept in such “agile” structures is “pair programming”, with not one but two programmers writing code together, with more back-and-forth and more chances to catch errors. But again, this model, perceived as more relevant for small teams, is far from perfect, as increased interaction creates increased coordination challenges, delaying decision-making for instance. “It is no accident that groups that need to react quickly, such as the military, are organized in that hierarchical way, because clearly defined roles and responsibilities mean more efficiency,” points out Sri Kudaravalli. “In a surgical team, for example, everyone contributes depending on their expertise, but in the end the surgeon makes the call.”

Distinguishing between different types of tasks

 

Excerpt of Business Digest N°280, October 2017

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How can you organize your team for optimal performance?

Based on an interview with Sri Kudaravalli, teacher at HEC Paris.

Adapted from an article originally published by the website Knowledge@HEC in February 2017

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