Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2013

Team Scaffolds: How Minimal Team Structures Enable Role-Based Coordination

by Melissa A. Valentine and Amy C. Edmondson


In this paper, we examine whether and how traditional team structures can be adapted to accommodate fluid personnel, and to what benefit. Previous research has shown that team membership stability fosters familiarity, trust, and transactive memory, which in turn enable effective coordination. Yet some work settings operate with fluid personnel, making stable team structures with ongoing relationships infeasible. We study the adaption of team structures for fluid work settings in a hospital emergency department (ED). Qualitative analysis revealed that the adapted team design embodied the logic of both role and team structures: a set of roles (rather than specific individuals, as in a team) was bounded and given collective responsibility for a whole task. We labeled this structure a team scaffold. The team scaffolds were minimal in the way that Tajfel's minimal in-groups were minimal: they had arbitrary and extremely short-lived membership. Even so, the team scaffolds provided clear benefits to those working within them. They gave fluid groups a shared focus, allowing them to prioritize their mutual efforts as a group, and gave rise to felt-accountability that encouraged even relative strangers to hold each other accountable for progress. Thus the team scaffolds enabled the construction of group coordination processes among fluid groups. Quantitative analysis showed that performance improved when people worked within team scaffolds, in part because of clearly designated partners within the larger fluid department. Our multi-method study reveals the design and benefit of minimal team structures (team scaffolds) in fluid work settings.

Keywords: Fluid Personnel; Team Scaffolds; Team Effectiveness; Role-based Coordination; Multi-method; Health Care and Treatment; Data and Data Sets; Knowledge Use and Leverage; Organizational Structure; Outcome or Result; Performance Effectiveness; Groups and Teams; Networks; Behavior; Balance and Stability; Health Industry;


Valentine, Melissa A., and Amy C. Edmondson. "Team Scaffolds: How Minimal Team Structures Enable Role-Based Coordination." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 12-062, January 2012. (Revised September 2012, April 2013, October 2013.)