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Multiteam Systems and Public Administration Leadership: Promising New Area for Research

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
May 14, 2019

I love going to conferences and learning about a new field of research that sheds some light on issues I am pondering. Recently, I attended the International Public Management Association’s Human Resources’ (IPMA-HR) Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter’s Day of Learning. The day included discussion topics on how to improve government HR operations and personal development. So, when I read about Dr. Stephen J. Zaccarro’s talk on multiteam systems, I was attracted to the phrase, “Team of teams.”

I first encountered the concept of a team of teams in General McChrystal’s 2015 book, Teams of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. McChrystal describes how he created a fluid organization that coordinated the actions of highly-specialized military teams. Other organizations have adopted the team-of-teams model such as the social entrepreneurship nonprofit, Ashoka. Bill Drayton, who founded Ashoka, describes his approach in this way:

Instead of maintaining a traditional structure in which people work in hierarchies based on a function or a formal business unit, an organization operates as a constellation of teams that come together around specific goals. At the center of this constellation is a coordinating executive team, but the composition of each project team shifts as needed over time. Teams and team members work together in fluid, constantly changing ways. The model emphasizes decentralized autonomy, meritocracy, and a sense of partnership.

An especially interesting point in Dr. Zaccarro’s studies on teams of teams (what the literature calls multiteam systems) is his focus on how the teams coordinate their actions. As he explains, the more high-performing the individual teams are, the less effective the multiteam system is. This is because the individual high-performing teams try to enforce the team’s ways of working on the other teams in the multiteam systems.

Dr. Zaccarro states that communication is a significant factor in helping multiteam systems. The liaisons between the teams create the channels of communication that the leadership of the multiteam system uses to coordinate the teams’ actions to the goal or goals of the multiteam systems. Equally important is the leadership of the multiteam system. When General McChrystal describes his briefing structure for his team of teams, you can see how the team liaisons created effective channels of communication to build a shared reality around which the multiteam system’s leadership effectively coordinated action.

Multiteam systems research is still evolving, and much work needs to be done. I see two areas where multiteam systems theory can aid public policy and administration.

Can Multiteam Theory Help Explain the Garbage Can Model of Organizations?

Cohen, March, and Olsen’s 1972 article described some organizations as organized anarchies:

 “Such organizations can be viewed for some purposes as collections of choices looking for problems, issues, and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be an answer, and decision makers looking for work.” 

Organized anarchies, or garbage cans, have three properties that force the organization into anarchy:

As I listened to Dr. Zaccarro’s talk, I thought about the three properties and how some aspects of the multiteam systems theory could address the challenges of the garbage can model. For example, establishing a clear goal to align the teams can mitigate the problem of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences. Another thought is addressing the issues of fluid participation by strengthening the relationships between team liaisons.

Monge and Contractor’s Multi-theoretical and Multilevel Model of Organizational Communication Networks Applied to Multiteam Systems

Monge and Contractor’s 2003 publication, Theories of Communication Networks, lays out a new way of incorporating various social science theories such as exchange theory and self-cognition theory to all aspects of a network. The purpose is to describe how agents in a network communicate, collaborate, and compete. Establishing communication pathways and protocols are essential to multiteam systems. Monge and Contractor’s 2003 multi-theoretical and multilevel (MTML) methodology can be a useful tool for investigating and envisioning the multiteam system’s communication flows and processes.

Multiteam System Theory of Public Administration Leadership

 As Dr. Zaccarro finished his talk, he described how there needs to be more research in the leadership competencies for multiteam systems. There is much research on leading teams and organizations. What is missing is how to lead in-between the teams and the organizations—the multiteam systems. Multiteam systems are becoming increasingly common in public agencies as these agencies confront today’s wicked problems.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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