Friday, November 30, 2012
Working in teams is the most effective approach for complex work. However effective teamwork doesn't just happen. This lecture examines some of the issues a manager encounters in facilitating teamwork and describes tools that help launch teams.
If this course was being offered in a group training environment this lecture would be a group exercise that is a classic in management training. Since it is a self-study course you cannot have the benefit of experiencing the impact of this exercise. I am constrained to describe the exercise and what happens to participants. Unfortunately you are constrained to read and visualize it rather than experience it firsthand. You are getting visual learning (reading) rather than learning by doing (the exercise) and for most people learning by doing is much more effective. We encounter this deficiency several times in this course so you need to use your imagination to visualize the experience I have observed others get from these exercises.
The team work or consensus seeking exercise is called Lost on the Moon. It is almost always a powerful demonstration that teams perform better than individuals in problem solving. The participants are told that they are members of a space crew that is forced to land on the lighted surface of the moon about 200 miles from their mother ship. They are given a list of 15 items that have survived undamaged with them. The objective is to prioritize the list in importance to their survival until they reach the mother ship. The items on the list include things that are very useful for their survival and items that are less useful or even useless in the moon environment. After the individual students complete the exercise they are instructed to form teams of four to five individuals and repeat the exercise as a team. When the teams have completed the exercise the results are scored for the individuals and for the teams by comparing their prioritized lists to the correct list.
I suspect you don’t find it surprising that typically the team scores are higher than any individual scores of the team members. Usually there is a question period where the team members are asked to discuss why their team score was higher than the individual scores. They often describe how ideas from different team members were helpful in reaching the best prioritization. The instructor then nods knowingly to accent the benefits of teamwork and consensus seeking in problem solving, whether it’s for an exercise or a real job problem.
What you may not find obvious is that sometimes the benefits of teamwork are brought out in a more dramatic way. Let me describe the results of one such training session that I conducted. The trainees were engineers and scientists. Many of the engineers already worked together daily in a team environment. Most of the scientists tended to be more individual contributors although they were working on similar projects as the engineers. When it came time to form teams those that worked together daily quickly grouped into teams leaving the individual contributors left over so that they formed a team. Two teams stood out. One contained the smartest and most productive scientists in the organization, all excellent and productive employees that worked mostly as individual contributors. The other was a group of young engineers with many years less experience than the scientists. They had been assigned to the lowest priority project in the organization where they worked closely together every day. There were no prima donas in this group and they demonstrated true teamwork.
As you might expect the individual scores of the scientists were considerably higher than the individual scores of the young engineers. What was more interesting was that the team score of the young engineers was considerably higher than the team score of the scientists and the team score of the scientists was lower than many of their individual scores.
I was able to observe how each of the teams addressed the exercise. The young engineers wasted no time in getting to the heart of the exercise. They also used every minute available in intense discussion and debated every item on the list as they made their decisions. Every member contributed just as they were used to doing in their daily work. In contrast the team used to working as individual contributors was not as intense and didn't interact as smoothly. They worked very hard on getting the top five items correct and then gave only minimal attention to the remaining items on the list. If I remember correctly they didn't even use all the allotted time to finish the exercise.
The results of the two teams’ performance are very instructive. The higher individual scores of the experienced scientists showed that they had the potential for a much better team score than the team score of the young engineers. However, the scientists were not used to working together as a team and didn’t handle the team dynamics as well. As a result they did not capitalize on their advantage and didn’t score as well working as a team as some of them scored individually. The young engineers were experienced in working as a team. They demonstrated very effective team dynamics and thereby raised their team score well above any of their individual scores.
Several lessons can be derived from the results of the two teams in the exercise.
First, teamwork is more effective than individual efforts in solving complex problems. Second, effective teamwork doesn't just happen by assigning people to a team. It’s important that they are trained or mentored in how to work together in ways that utilizes the best knowledge and skills of each team member. Finally, note how the exercise demonstrated the value of having people in job assignments that match their styles. The scientists performed very well as individual contributors, which was their normal assignment. The young engineers were a dynamite team. If one of the young engineers had been given an individual contributor assignment he would have likely performed under expectations. Similarly if one of the scientists had been given a team assignment he would likely have been unhappy and not been as valuable a contributor to the team as he would have been as an individual contributor to the teams efforts.
Typically work doesn't automatically divide itself into stuff for teams and stuff for individual contributors. Therefore how should a manager assign people to projects when the people are a mix of individual performers and people that work best in teams? It depends on the availability of skills for assignment to the project. If there is an abundance of available skills and if the project manager knows which are individual contributors and which are team workers then the project tasks can be staffed by selecting from the available skill pool so that team workers aren't mixed with individual contributors on tasks that require close coordination.
If there are a minimum number of required skills then there isn't any choice at the beginning. The project manager should hold regular project team coordinating meetings where progress on tasks is reviewed, resources are assigned or reassigned and key information that the whole team needs to hear is exchanged. At the first sign of trouble on a task check the staffing on that task to see if the team dynamics is working. Poor team dynamics is the number one cause of poor performance on projects so it is the natural cause to be investigated first anyway. If the team dynamics does seem to be a contributing cause of problems on the task then see if it is possible to exchange people with other projects so that the dynamics are improved. This causes a temporary disruption to both projects but that is preferable to leaving in place a team structure that isn't working and won’t improve on its own.
If the team dynamics can’t be improved by changing assignments then it is up to the project leader to work with the team members to set up working relationships that are sufficiently acceptable to all members that the work gets done. One possibility to explore is setting up a mentoring relationship between an experienced individual contributor and an inexperienced person that works better in a team. The primary thing to remember is to never let a team dynamics problem go unaddressed.
Tools for launching new teams
Even if the manager has selected a team with high potential for working together well that alone isn't sufficient to avoid team problems. There are two tools that help launch teams so that many problems are avoided. The first tool is a roles and responsibilities meeting. This meeting should be held as soon as possible after forming the team. The manager facilitates the meeting and introduces each person along with his or her assigned role on the team. Then the team members in turn discuss how they understand the other team member’s roles and how they understand their role. By the time each member has had a turn there is usually consensus on roles and responsibilities of every team member. Even though a manager believes the role of each member is clear from the manager’s introduction the discussion often reveals that the team members have a different interpretation and the meeting resolves these differences.
The second tool helps a team that has been assigned to a new project gain common understanding of the work they have before them. This tool is called a Quality Table 1 (also called a House of Quality) and is from the methodology called Quality Function Deployment (QFD). I have found that if a team assigned to a new project develops a Quality Table 1 together the team members reach a common understanding of the requirements for the project and the approaches needed to satisfy these requirements. In addition they develop criteria for evaluating their work during the project.
If you are not familiar with QFD look it up in Wikipedia or at the QFD Institute web site, www.qfdi.org. Although QFD is typically described in terms associated with engineering and manufacturing it is much more generally useful. I don’t discuss QFD in this course because a manager does not need to be an expert in QFD. It is advisable to be sufficiently familiar with the methodology to facilitate a team in developing a Quality Table 1. It is very beneficial to have access to an expert; either within the manager’s organization, within the enterprise or available as a consultant. Software is available that is useful for implementing a Quality Table 1. For example, free templates for implementing Quality Tables in Excel or OpenOffice calc are available at www.qfdonline.com.
1. Even if it is not in your action plan, now is a good time to evaluate if any of your workers are in job assignments that do not fit their style. Consider those workers that are not as productive as you think they should be. Think about their personalities and how they have performed in different assignments. Are any of them perhaps in an assignment that isn’t suitable? If so, consider how you might change the assignment. If you think a change might be helpful but it isn’t required for any obvious business reason you should discuss the change with the worker before making any changes. You may find that your assessment is correct and the worker welcomes the change or you may find that the worker is happy in the current assignment in spite of your assessment. If you have subordinate managers you might discuss any workers that they have that are considered problem performers to see if a change in assignment might be in order. In this case be careful not to trample on your subordinate manager’s turf. You can make suggestions or observations but the subordinate manger should make the decision. Remember the first rule of a manager. Attend to your own processes. A critical failure of some managers is that they continue to work on the job they had before their current assignment with the result that they interfere with their subordinate’s jobs and their own job is neglected. This is usually because they are more comfortable doing the previous job and may not know how to execute the processes associated with the new job. Don’t fall into this trap.
2. Review how your organization is organized for its work. Is the work done by teams, by individual contributors or a mix? Are there opportunities for more teamwork? How would changing to more teamwork affect the organization? Can beneficial changes be made without significant disruption? Do the styles of the workers fit having additional teams or closer teamwork? Depending on this assessment you should consider making the changes so that the organization can benefit from the advantages of team problem solving? Don’t forget that any new teams need training or mentoring in how to work effectively as a team.
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