What Are Multiteam Systems (MTSs)?
MTSs—multiteam systems—are not some new thing, for rare is the organization that does not rely on the coordinated actions of interdependent teams, particularly in production and the delivery of services.
Given the prevalence of teams in organizational settings, many teams interact regularly with other teams. When these teams cooperate with one another in the pursuit of common goals, then these teams become “teams of teams,” or multiteam systems (MTSs).
Multiteam systems (MTSs) are networks of interrelated teams united by common purposes. In other words MTSs are teams of collaborating teams working together to achieve shared goals.
Some tasks are not just too demanding for individuals, but too demanding for a single team—and so require the coordinated engagement of multiple teams to complete them. The cardiac surgical team, for example, did not work alone in providing care for patients at Mountain Medical.
Dozens of teams staffed the hospital—nursing teams, the recovery room teams, the emergency room crews, the patient management teams, and so on. These teams pursued their own team’s goals, but also goals that were common across all the hospital’s teams (Marks et al. 2005).
As might be expected, the dynamics of MTSs are even more complicated than the dynamics of any one team. The teams in some MTSs, with sufficient experience, learn to work well together—they coordinate their efforts, communicate necessary information across the team boundaries, and respond appropriately to the organizational interventions of team leaders.
Recently, a number of companies have begun to use teams to reorganize their work more fully, shifting from traditional hierarchically organized layers of authority with free-standing divisions, departments, and branches to systems of interconnected groups and subgroups. Their teams go by various names, such as “circles,” “cabals,” “pods,” or just “teams,” but they share one basic quality: they are teams of collaborating teams working together to achieve shared goals (Bernstein et al., 2016).
Zappos, for example, is a billion-dollar online shoe and apparel retailer that is experimenting with a multi-team organizational system called holacracy (Robertson, 2015). Zappos shifted from a traditional, hierarchical structure with a relatively small number of departments responsible for such tasks as customer service, product development, merchandizing, and finance to approximately 500 self-managed and interdependent teams.
In holacracy Opens in new window, these teams are called circles, and each one is defined not by the individuals who belong to that circle, but the roles within that circle. Each role has a specific set of “accountabilities”: activities and responsibilities that the person who occupies that role continually adjusts over time.
Each circle includes one role that is responsible for monitoring the connections among the roles—the “lead link”—but the individual who takes on that role has no more authority than any others in the circle. Most people at Zappos occupy multiple roles in the organization and belong to many circles, which overlap and are nested: circles contain subcircles, and supercircles contain any number of smaller circles.
Holacracy also sets guidelines for regulating the system, including governance standards, prescriptions for tactical meetings, specifications for defining a role’s responsibilities, and an organizational constitution.
This emphasis on interlocking, multiteam systems balances two desirable organizational necessities that too often complete with each other: the need for reliable execution of responsibilities and the need to adapt to changing circumstances.
Too much order and standardization means that organizations can’t respond quickly to new opportunities or deal with unexpected problems, but too little structure can result in very little work getting done. These new organizational strategies, by fully utilizing teams at all levels of the organization, promise to undo that tension between standardization and flexibility. Time will tell if this innovative, team-centered approach to organizational design can deliver on this promise.