How to finish a project when everyone on the team thinks they're an expert

When a group of highly experienced individuals get together to accomplish something, questions about leadership often crop up.

Who will lead the project? Will there be one leader delegating tasks, or will there be several groups? How can the group agree on a course of action?

When all group members consider themselves experts, these questions can become especially difficult to address. To keep a group of experts from letting their expertise become the very thing that keeps them from accomplishing a task, three researchers say you must pay close attention to how you structure the work.

These experts on experts are Sri Kudaravalli, an associate professor of information systems and operations management at HEC Paris; Samar Faraj, a professor and chair in technology, management, and healthcare at McGill University; and Steven Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Kudaravalli, Faraj, and Johnson explain a research project that allowed them to determine the best way to structure a team of experts.

To conduct the project, the experts looked at 71 software development teams in a high-tech company throughout the design and implementation phases of their projects. The teams consisted of 484 individuals in total—who all had around 12 years of experience, on average.

Also see: The best way to delegate is to teach specific skills

In observing the teams' structuring approaches, the researchers were able to determine two basic ways to configure expertise throughout a project:

  • The centralized "star structure"; and
  • The decentralized "wheel structure."

The researchers found that neither structure is universally better, but rather that the best structure to use changes throughout the project, depending the nature of the current phase of the task.

Early in the project, when you're brainstorming and researching solutions to a problem, the researchers say the wheel structure is most useful. In this structure, the broader group is broken up into subsets of expertise. According to the researchers, breaking the team up at this stage in the process prevents "the risk of myopic, insular thinking that can occur in a rigid hierarchy."

Another way to make your group smarter: Add more women

But once it's time to move on to making decisions and implementing solutions, researchers say the star structure works more smoothly. Under this structure, one designated person is put in charge of final say on decisions and designating responsibilities. The researchers say that during the process of executing a plan or design, putting one person in charge increases efficiency and guards against "analysis paralysis."

Ultimately, the researchers note, choosing one specific method of organization and applying it to an entire project is bound to cause conflicts. Instead, a team of experts should change up their approach at different stages, and "recognize that the design and implementation phases deal with different kinds of knowledge" and therefore require different types of organization (Furaj et al., Harvard Business Review, 5/10).

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