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Does It Matter If A Work Team Plays Offense or Defense?

“Yes,” says Anita Williams Woolley, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory. Woolley studies collaborative analysis and problem-solving in teams as part of her broader interest in collective intelligence. “Attackers and defenders, whether in the context of military security or a competitive market, exhibit different team behaviors that can dramatically affect outcome.”

To reach these conclusions, Woolley examined the behaviors of eight counterterrorism teams in a project sponsored by the CIA. Each team was given the same information about a current threat, and charged with either planning a terrorist attack (offense) or preparing to respond to the threat (defense). Woolley collected and analyzed the several hundred hours of video recordings of the teams at work.

“Three behaviors emerged that distinguished the teams and that contributed to their success or failure,” says Woolley, whose paper, “Offensive vs. Defensive Strategic Orientation and Collective Information Processing in Teams,” (.pdf) is under review by Organization Science. “Offensive teams enjoy the benefits of outcome focus, make better use of member knowledge and skills, and exhibit more creative thinking in work products, but they may overlook alternative perspectives and become myopic. Defensive teams may experience motivational deficits and information overload, but they can be more comprehensive in their approach to the problem.”

Anita Williams Woolley notes that while this military situation was unusual, “these inferences suggest that a company planning an IPO or an expansion into a new market should be aware of the benefits and detriments of an offensive approach. They risk being overly focused and overly confident. By contrast, a company defending against new market entrants risks being too comprehensive in guarding their territory and losing sight of their objectives. What would be ideal is for the CEO to recognize when her team is becoming too ‘offensive’ and get it to switch to ‘defense’ in order to test its assumptions, and vice versa. In the next stage of my research I will be studying the benefit of switching strategies, or of integrating the two strategies in planning.”

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