For Melissa Valentine and her colleagues at Stanford, the future of work is here: “flash teams” of skilled professionals who have probably never met before and may work on different continents, but who can turn a napkin sketch into a product within days or weeks.
Valentine, assistant professor of management science and engineering at Stanford School of Engineering, is part of a team that is advancing both the theory and the practice of complex work in the “gig” economy.
Basic crowd-sourcing, in which companies hire independent contractors for temporary projects, is already a signature feature of the modern economy. Companies that offer pools of on-demand workers, such as TaskRabbit and Amazon Mechanical Turk, are thriving. But that kind of crowd-sourcing is usually reserved for very simple or narrowly defined tasks: household chores, writing a patch of software code, or translating a document. With flash teams, Valentine and her colleagues are exploring how a large number of people with different skills can collaborate on work that moves through a series of phases.
Think of developing a new smartphone app or video game. The project requires software coders, artists, animators, and experts on user interfaces. Some of the tasks need to happen in parallel, while others need to be handed off from one group to another. It’s an interdependent process of designing, testing, revising, and testing again. It requires people to understand the big picture.
Drawing on research in organizational behavior, Valentine teamed up with Stanford computer scientist Michael Bernstein and PhD student Daniela Retelny to create a computerized system called Foundry to recruit and manage flash teams. They created Foundry as a research tool to study flash teams in practice, but it has been used by companies to develop smartphone apps, a computer game, online courses, and video animations.
Foundry taps into a global pool of about 2 million on-demand professionals offered by Upwork. But where Upwork typically supplies workers for small individual assignments, the Stanford system organizes multiple teams of experts to carry out complex tasks and to hand off work between each other as the project progresses. Everybody who participates can see the timeline of the whole project, so each team understands its own responsibility and can interact with the others.
Project leaders can expand, contract, and reconfigure the teams as they complete particular challenges or as new ones arise. Sophisticated algorithms help manage the flow. A chat system allows the specialized teams to communicate about more granular issues that don’t require the whole team.
Part of the idea, says Valentine, is to address several competing organizational needs. On the one hand, companies want flexibility and efficiency that comes from enlisting specialized contractors. On a complex project, however, companies also need the specialized teams to coordinate with each other in reaching the broader goal.
In her earlier studies, Valentine and her colleagues found that one key to crowd-sourcing at a higher level is to create defined roles. Each team needs a leader, a “directly responsible individual,” and each team needs to understand how its work fits into the big picture.
“The narrative in crowd-sourcing is that you can’t do complicated things,” Valentine says. “We found that we needed to create a shared location, where we all have a clear idea of our roles and what we are trying to accomplish.”
The results have been impressive. In a controlled study, Valentine and her colleagues compared the performance of six teams assigned to take “napkin sketches” or basic concepts for new web applications and design working prototypes. Three teams used the flash-team approach, in which the Foundry system kept all the team members apprised of each other, while three other teams were self-managed. All the teams completed their work, but the flash teams did theirs in half the time. In fact, the slowest flash-team finished its task faster than the fastest self-managed team.
In one instance, the Stanford group organized a composite flash team to create online courses. The project required nine sub-teams: three for web designers; three for educators to write the content; and three to produce the video animation. In just 19 hours of work, the team created a basic platform for the course and three interactive lessons. The cost: $3,801.
In another series of tests, the Stanford group organized teams on three real-world projects – a smartphone app for ambulance crews; a computer game; and a specialized web portal for a major consulting firm. Each project required about 30 people with a wide range of skills, and each project leader was able to hire the right people in record time: on average, about 13.7 minutes per person.
James Barrett, at the time a medical resident at the University of Utah, used the Foundry system to design a smartphone app to improve coordination between emergency medical technicians and hospital emergency rooms. Barrett had observed that rooms in the emergency department frequently weren’t prepared for incoming patients because they didn’t have enough advance information. He proposed an app that would make it easy for emergency crews to provide rough details on a patient’s condition as well as pinpoint information on the ambulance’s arrival time.
Researchers working on Stanford’s Foundry system helped Barrett recruit experts from around the world and organize the experts into a flash team with more than a half-dozen subgroups. Barrett oversaw the project, but says he left the technical decisions primarily to the team leaders. To his astonishment, the flash team delivered a working prototype in six months.
In their research, Valentine and her colleagues argue that flash teams have profound implications for how organizations work. “Flash teams can be combined to create new types of organizations with completely fluid boundaries – organizations that are composed of many smaller flash teams, each of which are spun up on demand, work in parallel, and disperse when complete,” they wrote.
Or as Valentine puts it: “This is about the future of work.”