When do teams begin and end? We see team membership change all the time, whether we’re talking about sports or a workgroup. My favorite baseball team is the Pittsburgh Pirates. As anyone that follows the team knows, they have had quite a bit of turnover in players (for example the recent unfortunate trade of Andrew McCutchen, one of my favorites), yet they remain the Pirates. This team did not end when McCutchen left. Nor did it begin when he joined their ranks. In other words, the existence of a team can and likely will continue even when membership changes. I can think of several work teams that I’ve been a part of, including in my role as director of the Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence program here at Saint Vincent, where members leave the team and new members come on board, all while the team continues along in its purpose.
I’m also reminded of my favorite band, Jethro Tull, when I think about team member changes. Jethro Tull (the band, not the 17th-18th century agriculturalist) was known as one of the few rock-and-roll bands to feature elements of hard rock, metal, progressive rock, folk, renaissance music, classical and acoustic rock while blending very complex lyrical and thematic elements (Moore, 2004). They are especially unique because of front man Ian Anderson’s flute playing. It is very odd to see a flautist in a rock band, yet Jethro Tull was winner of the first-ever Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Grammy Award in 1989 (beating expected winner Metallica) (Nollen, 2002).
Jethro Tull was formally formed about 1968 and was most popular in the 1970s with the hit songs Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, Locomotive Breath, Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day and Living in the Past, among many others (Parker, 2018). Though the band seemed to disband sometime around 2012, when members focused on touring and releasing music as solo acts, Jethro Tull released more than 20 studio albums and had more than 20 members pass through its ranks over the course of 44 years (Rabey, 2013).
Despite such turnover, Jethro Tull experienced much longevity and performed an expanding repertoire of songs consistently for nearly 50 years! How did they do this?
In the field of organizational behavior, researchers often analyze the topic of knowledge management. One specific consideration of knowledge management is the idea of collective memory. Collective memory is that knowledge that needs to exist for a team or an organization to continue to function even when a member leaves or is replaced. Every night for decades, Jethro Tull was able to keep its collective memory intact when the band took the stage no matter which musicians were currently in the band’s line-up. Somehow they found a way to train each new member on the band’s most popular songs almost seamlessly so that the new member could blend in with the other players.
Two specific ways in which teams and organizations might keep their collective memories intact could include:
- Mentorship links up individuals within an organization to learn from each other. A mentoring relationship could be formal (meaning assigned within an organization) or informal (meaning the relationship evolves and forms on its own). But in either case, both the mentor and mentee should learn something that helps them grow and develop in a specific way toward a goal to which they aspire (Sprinkle & Urick, 2018). In the case of a band, the mentee could learn the band’s songs and the mentor could learn more about new equipment or unfamiliar techniques of playing. In organizations and teams, the possibilities for learning that could occur between mentor and mentee are numerous.
- Documentation is a formal way of recording information. In many instances, this is done in a written or pictorial format. In organizations that have adopted operational excellence cultures, individuals will likely have written standard work clearly defining elements of their job as well as process charts to show the steps of transforming inputs to outputs. In a band, a new member might be able to read existing written music or listen to recordings to learn the songs. In either example, having documentation can help a newcomer to learn his or her role quickly.
Perhaps the most challenging thing that a newcomer might struggle with, though, when entering into an existing organization is to gain an understanding of that group’s culture. Having played for more than 20 years with my band (Neon Swing X-perience), I’ve definitely seen this challenge when we welcome new members. The existing members have a history, shared experiences, inside jokes and unarticulated ways of doing things together that newcomers may not grasp right away. Mentorship could help this, of course, but culture is tough to record through documentation.
Have you ever been a part of a group that struggled to maintain its collective memory? How did you keep it intact? What did you do as highly skilled expertise left your organization and newcomers came in? I’m interested to hear your thoughts! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, message me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/urickmj/) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-urick-05b775a3/) or leave me a comment here.
Dr. Mike Urick
Moore, A. (2004). Jethro Tull's Aqualung (Vol. 14). A&C Black.
Nollen, S. A. (2001). Jethro Tull: A History of the Band, 1968-2001. McFarland.
Parker, G. (2018). Original Jethro Tull: The Glory Years, 1968-1980. McFarland.
Rabey, B. (2013). A Passion Play: The Story Of Ian Anderson & Jethro Tull. Soundcheck Books.
Sprinkle, T. A., & Urick, M. J. (2018). Three generational issues in organizational learning: Knowledge management, perspectives on training and “low-stakes” development. The Learning Organization, 25(2), 102-112.