While conducting the interviews, it became quickly clear that the role of IT in the studied activity was rather minor, mainly confined to collecting the volunteering participants’ resumés and communicating with them. This observation consolidated our decision to focus on team assembly as decision-making in terms of social matching, regardless of the IT tools in use, rather than analyzing the use of very conventional tools like Microsoft Excel. We organize the results according to three main themes: team assembly as a decision-making practice, team composition including different approaches, and relevant individuals’ qualities in this type of teamwork.
Team Assembly Includes many Decision-Making Challenges
The participants perceived that a volunteer-based innovation project gives plenty of freedom in deciding who could work together, hence enabling collaboration also between people who normally would not collaborate. However, while most participants had pondered how to optimize the teams in different respects, in practice the selection process is naturally limited by the number of voluntary applicants. Also, the higher the freedom of choice is, the more challenging the comparison and decision-making becomes. Several participants recognized that they face challenges with the sheer amount of information that comes with the applications: one would ideally familiarize oneself with every application before making the final selection. At the same time, some matchmakers have to assemble the team from a small number of applicants and with straightforward selections without having time for a detailed comparison phase.
In addition to matching individuals with each other, also the project-applicant fit needs to be considered. The participants pointed out that they need to consider the applicants in relation to the project requirements from two perspectives. First, if it is practically possible, one considers the potential roles and responsibilities on the team-level. Second, one needs to match individuals’ qualities also with the project’s particularities. Typically, one would form an educated guess on what type of background or studies are needed in a particular case based on the topic of the project. At the same time, the participants were cautious not to fix an applicant to a certain role. Consequently, project-applicant fit is about balancing between making an educated guess in order to have predictability and giving participants room to surprise.
“I do think about roles at some point but I do not think like “s/he is probably going to be the project manager” [...] I do not want to think that this person is the one who develops the most unique ideas or this person is the one who is able to create the first lines of code.” (P13, speaking of a higher education innovation project)
Taking Risks to Reach an Unreachable Optimum
In order to maximize a team’s innovation potential, the matchmakers pointed out their willingness to take what they perceived as bold risks. P4 explained that he had changed his team assembly approach from tightly drawn criteria regarding fulfilment of key skills to making as ambitious combinations of people as possible. In practice, the ambition manifested as high diversity of educational backgrounds, ages and cultural backgrounds. In such cases, the participant mentioned to be aiming at enabling radical innovations rather than incremental innovations. By making seemingly surprising choices, so-called wild cards, they could optimize for high potential for novel solutions.
“I make quite a lot of provocative choices, so I dare to pick anything, provided that the team dynamics works and some very interesting avenues are opened. Even absurd combinations. This has almost turned to personal challenge seeking.” (P4, speaking of assembling teams for higher education innovation projects)
In a few interviews, the matchmakers highlighted that they get pleasure from making risky choices that turn out to yield great results. The riskiness referred to, for example, combining people that do not have substance skills relevant to the project topic or being unsure if the applicants are motivated enough. It is noteworthy that the nature of innovation projects allows taking risks and more freedom from the fear of making mistakes, when compared to other forms of matching, such as recruitment. The most experienced matchmakers said to have developed self-confidence that allows them to try new compositions and make quick selections based on intuition. In other words, the matchmakers try to balance between maximizing innovation potential and making overly ambitious, i.e., practically dysfunctional team compositions.
“There have been surprises. For example, in one case, we were a bit unsure of the motivation of a person. Would she shine or could she even quit at some point? We took a risk and selected her. She has proved to be marvellous regarding her attitude and is doing things with a big heart and enthusiasm.” (P12, speaking of selecting somebody to a higher education team)
There is no ultimate answer regarding the perfect team composition. The optimum was regarded as a moving, even unattainable goal. The ambiguity of an optimum in team compositions is also explained by the dynamics within an innovation project. For instance, the success of one team member might depend on whether another team member will succeed. Over the life-cycle of a project, the team members might have different responsibilities at different stages of the project, which also changes the criteria for the optimal composition. Overall, this ambiguity led to expert matchmakers being able to justify almost any team composition based on some criteria, as demonstrated by the quote below.
“You can assemble any kind of team and justify it by saying that it is what it is because of this and that [...] Basically we can make this type of decisions on any basis.” (P4, speaking of the uncertainty related to team assembly)
Matchmakers’ Awareness of their Selection Biases
Some rare occasions of matchmaking were said to be very straightforward, the matchmakers would use a score-sheet and give points to the applicants in different phases of the matching process. In this case, the phases typically include screening an application, face-to-face interviewing and group-based interviewing. The matchmaker gives points based on the perception of whether the applicant gives a positive or a negative impression at each phase. One participant pointed out that the key factor they try to spot in such situations is whether the applicants have negative attitudes or other potentially adverse factors on the team dynamics, that is, significant hindrances or barriers for the project success.
The straightforward approach to decision-making was, however, considered to come with the cost of biased decisions. Many matchmaking decisions and candidate evaluations were said to be largely based on intuition. The process resembles availability heuristics where sought features of people are recognized based on the matchmaker’s previous experience in working with teams that aim for innovation.
Many of the participants said to be able to scan a profile of a person without reading every piece of information. In other words, rather than using a strict criterion, they tend to lean on expert intuition. In many cases, a quick scan meant glancing through demographic information and the motivation letter, which were typically requested from the applicants. While it was noted that experience in matchmaking creates trust to confidently make quick decisions, it was also seen to render the decisions hard to justify rationally. Notably, and in contrast to other matching activities, assembling multidisciplinary innovation teams is characterized by the possibility and often by the necessity to make quick decisions.
Especially familiarity between the matchmaker and a potential applicant divided opinions. For example, applicants who have shared connections with the matchmaker might have an advantage in the matchmaking process. On the positive side, matchmakers look for people who they can trust to become valuable team members. Sometimes there is an opportunity to select people who are known to be accomplished team workers, based on being familiar with the persons. On the other hand, familiarity introduces a bias to the selection, hence the matchmakers were often consciously trying to avoid favoring or discriminating anyone.
“I have included someone in the team because I knew her/him only to be very disappointed by that [...] I try to put less weight on it (familiarity) than I have in the past [...] Every once in a while, they think: “oh, I know the instructor, I can just breeze through this.” (P2, pondering on including a familiar person to a higher education innovation project)
“Of course, I am a human and if I see that we have a mutual friend and I call her/him and ask how do you know her/him. What kind of a person is s/he? How did you meet?” (P7, speaking of the effect of having shared contacts)
Optimizing Team Composition in Practice
A recurring theme in the interviews was that there are various unpredictable and practical reasons why team members are unable to work well together. The practical reasons could include differences in language skills, challenges in matching schedules to work together, or physical distance between the team members. While such challenges are well known, it is hard for a matchmaker to prepare for them in the team assembly. On the other hand, matchmakers can have an influence on the team so that the members on average have the capabilities to complete the tasks. While some team members can contribute more than the others can, the matchmaker has to make sure that the work tasks can be balanced in a fair and meaningful way.
Principles in Relation to Heterogeneity
In most technology-oriented innovation projects, the matchmakers perceive that an optimal composition requires involving people from complementary fields or disciplines. The participants emphasized that while technical skills are very important, there should be enough diversity among team members, for instance, on the level of experience and values. Particularly, it was evident that there is a distinction between people who are capable of producing a prototype and people who are oriented towards producing user insight.
“If we start from having six people, I would like to have maybe four who really have some skills regarding technology [...] There needs to be... architecture skills or something that enables to design the thing [...] If there are only technical skills, it easily becomes like a job gig.” (P13, speaking of team composition in higher education innovation projects)
“Let us say that we launch two projects and in one we need strong engineer skills and in the other we definitely need social science students. Still, we want people from social sciences to the engineering projects and engineers or people with technology skills to social science projects.” (P3, speaking of diversifying higher education innovation projects)
Regarding an individual’s readiness to work in heterogeneous teams, one matchmaker was concerned that the team could lose some of its innovation capability if it includes a person who has previously only worked in teams with similar backgrounds of the members. The ability to work in heterogeneous teams was thus considered a skill to investigate in the team assembly. Furthermore, an interviewee who had worked in cross-organizational innovation projects reflected on the manifestation of diversity beyond demographic differences. For instance, multisectoral cooperation and bridging is important, i.e., the inclusion of both government and municipal stakeholders and the private sector. In addition, it is possible to increase diversity of viewpoints by including people from different organizational levels in a hierarchical organization. Variance in terms of expertise or experience also has potential to increase diversity. Overall, innovation projects were seen to allow bringing together people who would not otherwise meet due to hierarchy and lack of flexibility and cooperation between institutions.
“To be able to utilize multisectoral cooperation, you need people from governmental and municipal sectors [...] In addition of having different sectors represented, we try to find different people from the upper management, people from the middle management and workers.” (P9, speaking of multiorganizational innovation teams that focus on societal challenges)
Approaches in Team Assembly
The participants elaborated on different approaches to assemble a team by giving various examples. A common way is to build the team around one seemingly very suitable applicant. In the case of student-based innovation projects, the only requirement the matchmakers could identify for team assembly is to include one or two people who are knowledgeable about the project topic. In a typical case, applicants are added to the team one by one where each addition provides a new angle to the project topic or complementary value in relation to the already selected team members. Some matchmakers had the opportunity to use a computer software that enables drag-and-drop type of team building.
“The most common way is that we first check the whole list and if we find a gem that is a great match to the profile we are looking for, we take her/him and start to check other people around her/him. [...] In most cases, we start from a couple of people who have competence regarding the project topic or people who act as “glue” – meaning people who could work with anyone.” (P4, speaking of arranging approaches in higher education innovation teams)
“If a project has a technical aspect, (it is important to) make sure that there will be one or two people who can speak about it before making sure that the rest of the project team is filled.” (P2, speaking of arranging approaches in higher education innovation teams)
For the most of our participants, several teams would be assembled at once, to work in parallel during a predefined project period. Here, team assembly can be seen as a zero-sum game where it is necessary to consider whether to aim at several equally skillful teams or a few great ones. To this end, one approach is to aim for balanced and equally competent teams. In this case, matchmakers would continuously look for balance across the teams by using their judgment and various criteria. The participants described their thinking in typical matchmaking situations:
“I might (first) take all the business students, look at their motivations and distribute them across (groups), and then look at all the social sciences students and figure out how to distribute them. That way we could get well-rounded teams.” (P2, speaking of balancing higher education innovation teams)
“If we think from the viewpoint of the team, it might not be enough that you have every specialist of a certain topic in the same place. No, it is more about how they work together and how things like trust and empathy work... things that relate to the interaction, they are much more important than how smart they are or how good they are in their work.” (P5, a coach of team leaders and managers)
In contrast to the above-mentioned approaches, some matchmakers mentioned to have used an approach that could be considered the opposite, however less popular according to our data. That is, a matchmaker can prioritize some teams or projects over the others and create teams that have, in principle, higher potential to yield good results. However, the interaction among team members and the previously mentioned soft skills should still be considered.
“We also assemble teams that can be thought as, using interior design vocabulary... if we have six valuable pieces of furniture that cost 2000 per piece, they usually work together no matter what because they all are pieces of art. So (it is) a team of super people. Their communication might not be great as a team but they are able to produce something, because everyone is capable of doing something special.” (P4, speaking of assembling higher education innovation teams)
Along the same lines, some projects and team assembly cases might be given more effort or better tools, for instance, because the project partner pays extra. In other words, the business model of the innovation platform could also set priorities to the matchmaking process. Such mechanisms set the teams in unequal positions from day one, whereas a common value in education is to provide more equal opportunities across the population.
“When there is a student who would fit to every project, we have to think from the perspective of the client. If we have a client who has bought a package of four projects [...] compared to if we have a small company that is doing their first experimental project or has had the opportunity of a free project (with us). For the big, older clients, we prefer these “safe options” (people who are the most likely to succeed).” (P3, speaking of higher education innovation projects)
A risk for an approach where team dynamics are not that much in the focus is that the people might not be able to effectively work together. It is easy to agree on that in the short-term, there is no room for conflicts between team members. The interviewees pointed out that strong-minded people sometimes clash in teamwork. However, it was also noted that it is very challenging to identify such individuals or combinations in the selection phase. One way to identify determined people could be to check whether the applicant has been really active in the past.
“I personally think that it does not work if everyone is really eager and wants to be the leader. Moreover, if everyone is really determined, it does not work either. There needs to be a balance.” (P6, speaking of leadership qualities in higher education innovation projects)
Principles Regarding Individual Qualities
Identifying and describing one’s skills and strengths can be challenging for anyone, let alone students who are only building their professional identity. Hence, the applications often remain on a very general level, often not helping the matchmaker to consider the combinations. This also brings forward the challenges related to impression management and the role of the technology between the matchmaker and the applicant. Currently, electronic applications for the projects typically favor the applicants who are good at expressing their skills and qualities in written form. After all, other forms of communication, such as speech and video, are typically not supported.
“In theory, it is not even required to know what your [the applicant’s] skill levels are.[...] A skill can be very limited. The clearer and more concrete it is the better. It is a bit of an art form and it easily becomes nonsense. It is an advantage if the skill is potentially usable in other projects as well.” (P1, a CEO whose company is developing an app that matches people into teams within an organization)
Social Interaction Style Typically Matters the Most
When asked about the applicants’ most important qualities, many matchmakers highlighted the abilities related to communication and self-expression. All project members need to be ready for close-knit teamwork and brainstorming. Therefore, they need to be not only capable of discussing the project topic but also willing to share something about themselves in order to build trust. The team members are also expected to be able to provide constructive feedback to each other and give a chance for others to explain themselves. The ability to communicate was stressed especially in relation to the beginning of the project when the team needs to map out the current level of understanding in the team. However, and more importantly, such qualities were said to be very challenging to identify and compare based on the applicants’ resumés or even based on a group interview. According to the interviewees, focusing on the hard skills and motivation letters hinder making well-informed matching decisions but they had few ideas on how to mitigate this dilemma.
Regarding the working and interaction styles, the matchmakers reported a few differences that could be used to categorize individuals. For instance, an applicant might like to work on complex tasks that consider the big picture, while another prefers dividing the work into smaller and more concrete and attainable tasks. One might get excited by problem solving and brainstorming in the beginning of the project, while others might prefer grinding and doing more profound research. Matchmakers noted that the applicants differ in how much time they spend pondering, however, this might not predict success. Nevertheless, similar to the communication abilities, the matchmakers emphasized that they struggle to derive any insight on the way of working and interaction styles from the applications.
“For some, the grinding phase is very suitable but they would need something more for the beginning. If there is an unclear problem-solving task in the beginning, they might get frustrated. On the other hand, some people might be like “we will do this and that” and the others can continue from there.” (P10, a team coach who guides higher education teams)
“Some people quickly volunteer information [...] whereas others sit, ruminate about it for a bit, think about it and only after they get a concrete idea, they put it out like “should we do this?” and that is usually the best option.” (P2, speaking of individual differences regarding interaction styles in higher education innovation projects)
One matchmaker explained her thinking regarding the mismatch between the educational background of an applicant and the project topic. In such cases, there is typically some other reason, such as hobbyism, explaining why the applicant wants to join that specific project. Therefore, it is often perceived as a sign of creativity and courage if one applies for a project with which their skills or interests do not directly match. Especially if one is able to argue why their skills are relevant to the case, it indicates skills relevant to innovation projects.
“If a geo-engineer wants to look at software, I have no idea why. But if they really want to do it, there must be a reason. Let us find it out. To me that is fascinating, I love the notion of apparent misfits.” (P2, speaking of multidisciplinarity in higher education innovation projects)
Using Third-Party Tools to Model Behavior
During the interviews, the participants elaborated on using some third-party services to help their work. Particularly, the participants had mixed opinions about the so-called Belbin team role test (Belbin 2012). Measuring of personality or other individual qualities was seen as ethically questionable and potentially limiting a team member’s thinking about their role. If such tests are conducted, it is important to consider how the results are communicated and to whom. On the positive side, profiling personality could help to identify what would be an ideal environment for an individual, and the team role test could also be used to verbalize the differences within a team.
“We do not apply it [Belbin test], because the interpretation of the results is difficult and how can you tell the person the results in a way that it is useful and not harmful? Whatever measures you are using to classify people and put them into boxes, it easily becomes like “you are always like that” and “you are always in the corner”. Alternatively, people get behind it like “well, I am always like this, I do not have to learn.” (P5, a coach of team leaders and managers)
“I think Belbin is good, because it gives vocabulary to the students to talk about the differences, different ways to work in a team.” (P11, speaking of higher education innovation projects)
While the need for more detailed profiling of the applicants was evident, many participants felt that the matchmaking process should not be made too heavy by, for example, adding personality tests. This introduces an interesting contradiction and a need for making trade-offs between comprehensively analyzing the suitability of an applicant and keeping the application process light and the matchmakers’ decision-making practically manageable.