Clusters, as conceptualised by Michael Porter (1990), have been central in economic theory. Geographically concentrated interconnected companies within similar industries have spurred economic growth and driven innovation. Silicon Valley’s technology hub, Wall Street’s finance focus, and Milan’s fashion hotspot are just a few instances of this clustering phenomenon.
Although economic and geographical clustering offers intriguing insights, I’m particularly interested in applying this concept to the microcosm of individual organisations – their teams. Could the “cluster” effect potentially apply to the human aspects of businesses?
What is a team cluster?
Based on principles of organisational psychology, a “team cluster” is a group of people with unique strengths who work together to create an environment that fosters innovation and high performance, according to Sundstrom et al. (2000). This approach differs from the traditional “superstar” model, which relies on one exceptionally talented individual to drive success. Instead, it suggests that a team made up of consistently above-average members is more likely to achieve optimal performance.
The way a team works together is very important in this model (Forsyth, 2018). Adding a superstar could upset the balance of the team and cause conflicts or hard feelings. However, a team that is well-balanced will work well together and have better relationships, leading to better performance. The Galáctico project in Real Madrid which was cancelled in 2007, is an example of this (although there is a new one in development by all accounts).
The power of a strong team can be seen in historical examples, such as Walt Disney Studios’ ‘Nine Old Men’, a group of animators who worked together to create beloved films like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and ‘Bambi’. This shows how a team with a balance of talent can be more effective than relying on one exceptional individual.
According to a theory called social loafing (Latane et al., 1979), people often put in less effort when they are part of a group, especially if they think that someone else in the group is responsible for most of the success. However, having a well-balanced team ensures that every member’s input is valuable, which decreases the chances of social loafing and leads to better overall performance.
The ground-breaking development of penicillin by Howard Florey, Ernst Boris Chain, and their colleagues at Oxford University exemplifies the power of such a team cluster (Ligon, 2004). Each individual played a vital role in the process, validating the potency of a balanced, collective effort in accomplishing a shared goal.
Training and collaboration
Developing the skills and relationships of team members can strengthen the effectiveness of team clusters. This involves training and development to promote shared understanding, mutual respect, and collaboration within the team, as stated by Salas et al. in 2008. A prime example of this is the COVID-19 vaccine development teams, like the one behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, who utilised their diverse skills and knowledge to successfully develop a vaccine through collective effort and collaboration.
Team cluster dynamics
The success of the ENIAC team in history underscores the significance of diversity and equality in teams. The “ENIAC Girls,” a group of six female mathematicians who were among the earliest computer programmers, played a crucial role in the creation of ENIAC, one of the earliest general-purpose computers. This demonstrates the value of utilising various skills and viewpoints, as well as the power of inclusiveness in optimising team performance.
The concept of the team cluster model can be applied in different fields, including sports. However, the dynamics may differ due to the unique nature of athletic performance. Nevertheless, the idea remains valid that a team with a good balance of contributions from each member often performs better than a team focused on one superstar, as proven by Fransen et al. in 2015.
Leadership’s role in team clusters
Creating effective team clusters requires intentional development and management. Encouraging self-development and peer-to-peer learning can raise the team’s overall competency level (Decuyper et al., 2010). Additionally, it’s important to nurture an environment where team members feel valued and understand their contribution to the overall goal. Leadership plays a crucial role in creating a culture that values collaboration, continuous learning, and collective success over individual brilliance.
In conclusion, team clusters are effective because they bring together a diverse range of skills, encourage collaboration, and promote continuous learning and development. By combining these elements, organisations can use team clusters to improve innovation and performance. In short, the team cluster model shows that working together can achieve more than working alone.
Decuyper, S., Dochy, F., & Van den Bossche, P. (2010). Grasping the dynamic complexity of team learning: An integrative model for effective team learning in organisations. Educational Research Review, 5(2), 111-133.
Fransen, K., Vanbeselaere, N., De Cuyper, B., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2015). The myth of the team captain as principal leader: extending the athlete leadership classification within sport teams. Journal of sports sciences, 33(14), 1377-1387.
Forsyth, D. R. (2018). Group Dynamics. Cengage Learning.
Latane, B., Williams, K., & Harkins, S. (1979). Many Hands Make Light the Work: The Causes and Consequences of Social Loafing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(6), 822-832.
Ligon, B. L. (2004). Penicillin: Its Discovery and Early Development. Seminars in Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 15(1), 52-57.
Porter, M. E. (1990). The Competitive Advantage of Nations. Free Press.
Salas, E., Cooke, N. J., & Rosen, M. A. (2008). On teams, teamwork, and team performance: discoveries and developments. Human Factors, 50(3), 540-547.
Sundstrom, E., McIntyre, M., Halfhill, T., & Richards, H. (2000). Work Groups: From the Hawthorne Studies to Work Teams of the 1990s and Beyond. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 4(1), 44-67.