California Management Review: Network perspectives on improving team performance in sales, innovation, and execution


The summer issue of California Management Review a couple of years ago contains an article co-authored by myself together with Rob Cross of the University of Virginia, Kate Ehrlich of IBM, and John Helferich of Northeastern University, titled Managing Collaboration: Improving Team Effectiveness through a Network Perspective. The article can be purchased from the California Management Review website (the journal is published by the Haas School of Business at University of California – Berkeley).

I’ve provided the synopsis of the paper and a more detailed description below. Writing the paper was an interesting process, bringing together specific domain expertise and insights from projects that each of the four of us have run over the last few years. The result is a framework and detailed prescriptions on how a network perspective can take the lessons on teams learned over the last decades to the next level, applied in a number of specific areas. Here is the article title and abstract.

Managing Collaboration: Improving Team Effectiveness through a Network Perspective

Rob Cross, Kate Ehrlich, Ross Dawson, and John Helferich

50/4 (Summer 2008): 74-98

Whether selling products or services, making strategic decisions, delivering solutions, or driving innovation, most work of any substance today is accomplished by teams. However, since the early 1990s, teams have evolved from more stable groups-where members were co-located, dedicated to a common mission, and directed by a single leader-to more matrixed entities with colleagues located around the world, juggling time between several projects, and accountable to multiple leaders. As teams have become more fluid, substantial challenges have been posed to traditional advice on team formation, leadership, roles, and process. This article describes how leaders at all levels within an organization can obtain innovation and performance benefits by shifting focus from forming teams to developing networks at key points of execution.

Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) (social network analysis applied to organizations) provides deep and specific insights into how to enhance the performance of organizations.

In the article we ask six questions to determine team effectiveness:

– Are the right voices influencing team trajectory?

A key issue is balancing seniority, expertise and influence in driving the team.

– Is the team “appropriately” connected for the task at hand?

Connecting more is not better – the most relevant people need to be brought together on the issues where they can contribute most.

– Has the team cultivated important external relationships?

Any team needs to be able to draw on the best resources and capabilities, whether they be inside the organization or beyond.

– Are value-adding collaborations occurring in the team network?

Connecting is not enough – positive, energizing contributions are required to create value.

– Do underlying relationship qualities yield effective collaboration at the point of need?

Awareness of expertise and trust in teammates are necessary to effectively orchestrate resources.

– Does organizational context support collaboration and momentum?

Team success is dependent on leadership, morale, internal competition and other environmental factors.

We go on to look in depth at three types of teams: sales, innovation, and execution. (The draft article included a fourth category of decision-making, but this came out during edits.)


ONA helps assess three high-leverage points for improving performance:

* Quality of relationships between the account team and client

* Quality of relationships within the account team

* Quality of relationships connecting the team with the host organization.

One of the examples we used was of a global IT services company working with a major client, where an ONA study was able to provide insights into how to deal with the most central contact going on maternity leave.


Innovation stems from new connections between existing ideas, so is inherently a network concept. Network dimensions that can improve innovation outcomes dramatically include:

* Staffing innovation teams with brokers from broader informational networks

* Targeted development of external ties for decision purposes

* Team networks that produce creative friction and innovation breakthroughs through recombination of existing expertise and resources.

The key example used was of the MyM&Ms initiative of Masterfoods, which brought together disparate research and teams to create a highly profitable venture with a new business model as well as product.

Execution teams

Project teams are tasked with executing defined tasks within time and budget. Key network considerations to improve performance include:

* Building mutual awareness of current work and expertise

* Formation of cohesive, specialized subgroups knit together by technical brokers

* External relationships for product/ service adaptation

The central example used was of software development teams in a major technology company, where network studies showed how restructuring internal and external ties could enhance performance.

The intent of the paper was to demonstrate some of the ways that network analysis can created pointed value in organizations.

I absolutely believe that these approaches are where the best-performing organizations can continue to enhance their performance and move away from their competitors. The result is better outcomes in sales, innovation, execution and far more.