“Pop-Up” Teams

In today’s world of rapidly changing markets and technological advances, the traditional focus on scale and efficiency is going the way of the dinosaur.  Rigidly structured, “siloed” organizations seem to be constantly restructuring and changing leaders to be competitive.  This form of change creates a lot of angst and disruption to the organization and the constant restructuring suggests that the changes made aren’t yielding the benefits expected.

In their key predictions for 2017, Bersin by Deloitte foresees organization design as a significant challenge for companies. Bersin predicts that “organization design, including structure, roles, talent mobility, and the role of leadership must become flexible and adaptive.” In effect, change will be constant, but less disruptive.

Agile, adaptive organizations leverage networks of small teams – many of which will be temporary. That is, the teams come together for a defined purpose to complete a specific project in a relatively short time frame. The concept of “pop-up” team goes hand-in-hand with the “gig economy,” where teams of freelancers come together to execute a project.  However, it can apply to full-time employees within an organization as well.

We may be seeing “pop-up” teams becoming more prevalent. This summer, The New York Times covered the “pop-up” team phenomenon in this article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/12/business/economy/flash-organizations-labor.html.  The authors provide good examples of how this trend is unfolding. Clearly, information technology has made the flash organization viable, but it is not altogether a completely new concept.  Hollywood has been operating in this way for decades and we can look to the practices of producers – who assemble teams of directors, writers, actors, designers, technicians and craftsmen to pull off large, complex projects – for some keys to success.

In his book Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux highlights organizational practices in use today that can serve “pop-up” organizations well.  Many of these practices are the foundation of effective self-managing organizations, including those that follow Holacracy (e.g., Zappos).  Holacracy has a structure and a set of organizing principles that are critical for success:

  • Clear goal
  • Clear roles/responsibilities and boundaries
  • Total Responsibility – every member of the team is responsible for the success of the team
  • Standard forums to review progress and make mid-course corrections on how the team is operating. This includes separating governance meetings from tactical meetings and using a decision-making approach based on the advice process

Flash organizations work best when the elements that support effective teamwork are in place, including:

  • Small Teams

Jeff Bezos is known for the “two-pizza” rule when it comes to creating teams.  If you need more than two pizzas to feed the team, the team is too large. While there is no consensus on the ideal size of a team – 5 or 6 people seem to be about right.  See this article on Knowledge@Wharton for more on team size and cohesion  http://whr.tn/2esXq6O

  • Clear purpose and project plan

All team members need to understand what the team is expected to accomplish and be working from the same overall plan that defines project scope, time frame, milestones, and deliverables

  • Clearly defined (well-established) roles and effective selection of people for each role based on their skills/competencies

Teams often go off course when team member roles are not clear.  It is easy for work to fall through the cracks or for there to be duplication of effort if each team member is unclear about the roles played by the various members of the team.  Team composition – ensuring that roles are filled by people with the appropriate skills and experience – is a key factor for success.  It is important, here, to distinguish role from job.  On a project team, a role has specific responsibilities associated with that project.  An individual could play different roles on different teams – it’s the role that defines who does what and it’s the person that defines the individual capabilities brought to the team.

  • An ability to reorganize, as needed, as the project evolves

Since the unit of work is the project and not the department, the composition of the team can shift as the project advances.  Capabilities needed at the outset of a project may no longer be relevant and new capabilities may be needed in later stages.  Like building a house, you need one set of capabilities to lay the foundation and frame the structure and another set to paint the walls once the house is built. Project teams are much more agile than in-tact organizational units and can adapt as conditions change. Holacracy follows the concept of individuals fulfilling multiple roles – and the need for roles to be defined fluidly as work progresses.  The focus is on roles, not turf.

AirBNB has been practicing this form of agile organization in parts of the business.  When expectations are set that change will be constant and when those involved in making the change are engaged in conversations about the change in advance, teams reorganize easily – with minimum disruption.

  • Clearly defined communications and decision-making practices

Effective “pop-up” teams lay out communications protocols and decision-making practices at the outset.  Confusion is minimized when everyone knows who is accountable for key decisions.  Meetings have specific purposes with clear agendas.  For example, Holacracy differentiates governance meetings from tactical meetings.  A well-functioning team establishes “rules of the road” for intra-team communications, including agreements for electronic and in-person communications.  Most importantly, all team members are kept updated on project status and issues.

  • Strong project managers/middle managers — project management discipline

With the flattening of organizations, middle manager roles were expected to disappear.  However, project teams thrive where there is strong project management and this is the role that middle management can fill.  It’s the project manager that ensures the project structure is in place to support the work of the team.  This includes defining project scope, a project plan, the roles of team members and selection of those team members, and overseeing the communications and decision-making to ensure the team is on track.

  • Team identity/affiliation

The ability of team members to form cohesive relationships is important.  It lays the foundation for them to work through the conflicts and miscommunications that can arise with any group endeavor.  They are more likely to take ownership for the team’s work if they have formed trusting relationships – where they know that they have each other’s backs.

I’ve worked with leaders to assess their current organizations and design for the future.  A large part of this work involves going beyond the organization structure to clarify the operational processes that cross functions and the mechanisms for collaboration.  While it may seem like flash organizations or networks of teams might be less structured than traditional, hierarchical organizations; in fact, their success is highly dependent on creating structure and operating processes at the level of the team, not the functional silo.

Current trends suggest that even traditional organizations can benefit from the agility of “pop-up” teams by organizing work as a set of projects rather than static jobs.  By setting “pop-up” teams up for success at the outset, organizations can be more agile in allocating resources to meet the ever-changing needs of the business.