By Melissa J. Anderson

When we think about teams, we usually imagine a group of people who come together to work on a project or solve a problem. But according to new INSEAD research [PDF], the reality today is different.

While teams in the past were static, mostly homogeneous groups of people with defined roles working toward a set solution, INSEAD’s Mark Mortensen writes that today teams are much more fluid. In his paper, “The Team Unbound: The Theoretical, Methodological, and Managerial Implications of Fluid and Multiplex Boundaries in Teams,” he explains:

In reality, however, team boundaries are often fluid – with members changing in response to shifts in their environment – as well as multiplex – with multiple salient but nonaligned sets of members spread across different contexts. While addressing the practical needs of organizations in today’s’ post-bureaucratic global economy, boundary fluidity and multiplexity do not match the approach to boundedness found in much scholarly and lay-thinking about teams.

When organizational development practitioners apply the old definition of teams to the new reality, they may inadvertently ignore new challenges that have come to light in the workplace over the past few decades. Mortensen suggests that by framing teams as task-oriented rather than people-oriented, companies can better organize and motivate staff to achieve their full potential.

Changing Teams

Mortensen says one reason teams are becoming more fluid is because of the uncertain business environment. People move in and out of teams because the needs and expectations are constantly changing. What’s more, people tend to be part of more than one team. This is known as boundary fluidity and encompasses both how many people move in and out of teams and how often this movement takes place. He points out to recent studies showing that 69% and 84% of teams had changed their membership over the course of the life of the team.

The second aspect influencing the need to change the way we think about teams is called team multiplexity, he continues. That has to do with the kind of boundaries that are within a team: “how many different boundaries a team has (e.g. two different boundaries versus seven) and how different the team’s boundaries are (e.g. disagreeing on only one team member versus disagreeing on half the team).”

As diversity in the workplace increasing, so does multiplexity. “These include factors like socio-demographic traits (e.g. culture or language), functional characteristics, (e.g. training or experience), and contextual and organizational factors (e.g. physical location or time zone and organizational, divisional, or team membership),” Mortensen explains. When everyone is working in the same location toward a single goal, and when there are few differences between group members these “boundaries” serve to create more cohesion. But that is not the reality today.

“Frequently, however, these boundaries are only partially overlapping and therefore non-aligned, for example, geographically dispersed teams with members working in different physical locations, cross-organizational teams composed of employees from multiple organizations, or teams whose members are concurrently members of multiple – and different – other teams. In such situations, team members must manage and make sense of multiple, and at times competing, boundaries.”

What’s more, most people work with others in different locations – or even on different continents. The paper cites a recent study showing that 80 percent of employees collaborated with people dispersed geographically, dealing with differences like language, culture, and time zone. Another study showed that 60 percent of Intel employees were on more than one team at once.

Finally, the paper also discusses team dynamism, which, he believes is increasing as project-based work is becoming more the norm. “Particularly in project-based work, teams are frequently created and used in a transient fashion – they are formed, accomplish their task and are disbanded in a short period of time,” Mortensen writes.

Challenges and Solutions

Thinking about teams as they once were – static and bounded – as opposed to what they are now – dynamic and fluid – can cause companies to lose out. For example, specialization is likely within teams, but when boundaries are constantly shifting, it’s easy to lose a specialist, and thus all of the knowledge that specialist has built up.

By reframing the way we think about teams (focusing on the “what” rather than the “who” Mortonsen suggests, companies can build solutions to these issues – like making building an online knowledge repository for a particular project, so when someone leaves a team, the next person doesn’t have to start from scratch.

Additionally, remembering today’s changing multiplexity of teams can help companies focus on diversity and inclusion. By developing some of the challenges teams may face around multiplexity and cohesion, companies can work to bring out the best in their workers.