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Change can be successful

What makes a successful team? There are, without doubt, many factors involved. The ability to change clearly plays a decisive role, at least in project-based work. This is the finding of a study led by Professor Claudia Buengeler from the Institute of Business at Kiel University.

Three people working together
© istock/Sladic

It's all in the mix. Teams always need fresh minds to be innovative on the road.

Buengeler, who deals time and again with everyday questions of management research, carried out her study on the creative industry and, in particular, on project teams working on developing video games. There was a good reason for this: the creative elements that feature at practically every stage of game design mean that this sector not only lists the project leaders by name but mentions all the other project members, too. "This can be up to several hundred people working for many months, sometimes even years, under a team of project leaders," said Professor Buengeler, describing the dimensions involved.

The data situation is virtually perfect in another respect, too: due to the availability of sales figures and also reviews in the specialist press as well as on the gaming scene itself, the success of these project teams can be assessed in a largely objective manner and from various viewpoints. "The method we use to collect data follows the big data trend," explained Buengeler, who worked on her study with a research team from the University of Amsterdam. The members on board included Wendelien van Eerde and Nachoem Wijnberg as well as Frederik Situmeang, who used webcrawling to extract the desired information on more than 5,000 games development projects included in the study from the wealth of material available online. The key question in evaluating this enormous set of data was: are well-established teams whose composition remains the same from one project to the next more successful? Or do teams work better with a higher degree of fluidity, in other words, with many members changing from project to project?

The analysis clearly shows ambiguity in the case of teams with project leaders who largely remain the same. With regard to this, Claudia Buengeler said that "a high degree of stability is accompanied by a higher degree of cohesion and a better idea of who knows what and who can do what and which role he or she fulfils. On the other hand, however, there is often a limiting effect if the project is not just about further developing an existing product but involves creating something new." The Kiel study shows that project teams required to be innovative are already less successful if around half the members of the tried-and-tested team remain the same from one project to the next. By contrast, in the case of projects which follow on from one other and are mainly focused on further development, the change factor plays practically no role in their success.

And what conclusion is drawn from this? "It is not a good idea to leave the composition of teams involved in innovation-oriented tasks to chance," said the Kiel-based expert. In the worst case scenario, she said, this would result in bubbles of mutual self-affirmation while economic trends move in a completely different direction. According to the researcher, the connection between change in team composition and success can be proven particularly well in the creative industry, but the results can also be applied in essence to all project-oriented sectors involving tasks that require a higher degree of innovative strength.

Buengeler is not necessarily concerned that employees will become eternal nomads due to constant changes within the teams. "By definition, project teams only work together for a fixed period of time. It is rather unlikely to expect the same colleagues to work together on new tasks and be innovative over and over again. There are still a lot of areas in which teams are established for the long term and where more fluctuation is rather undesirable." If these stable teams have to perform innovative tasks, however, the professor recommends that they should consider diversity and other factors that could provide fresh impetus. Conversely, however, it is also true that too little stability even in project teams looking for the next great innovation is not the best idea and limits success, as consistently shown in the study's findings. Uniting forces therefore still remains very important.

Author: Martin Geist