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(originally published by Booz & Company)

Strategies for Dividing Teams

Managers should pay special attention to the way they divide a team into subgroups.

Friends and Enemies Within: The Roles of Subgroups, Imbalance, and Isolates in Geographically Dispersed Teams

Michael Boyer O’Leary and Mark Mortensen

MIT Sloan, Research Paper No. 4689-08

Date Published:
February 2008

Subcommittees and subgroups are critical to dividing and completing group tasks. But what is the best way to divide a larger group into smaller teams? This study examines teams made up of geographically dispersed subgroups. The experiment used 62 teams of six undergraduates. Each six-person team was then broken down into subgroups of different sizes with members on different campuses. The researchers tasked each team with writing a collaborative report on a broad academic topic. The authors examined the effects of different subgroup sizes and configurations (for example, groups of 3+3, 2+3+1, or 5+1) on team performance. They found that teams with subgroups of unequal sizes exhibited higher levels of intra-team conflict, had greater problems with team identity, and were less coordinated than teams with subgroups of equal size. The exception to that rule was that isolated team members — those who worked alone from home, for instance — worked well with geographically dispersed subgroups. They tended to be more efficient, had no issues of ownership, and helped coordinate the efforts of other subgroups.

Bottom Line:
Managers should pay special attention to the way they divide a team into subgroups and note that equally sized subgroups tend to perform better than subgroups of differing sizes.


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