According to Kerr, “Teams are replacing individuals as the basic building blocks of organizations.”1 In 2000 Kerr estimates teamworking was a strategy employed by 90% of Fortune 500 companies. Team-oriented workgroups appear in numerous case studies promising exceptional results in improved efficiency and increased productivity. Organisations therefore perceive operational advantage in teams, worthy of the expense and inevitable organisational structural changes required. Teamworking is now “the most frequent topic taught in company training programs of 200 Fortune 500 companies.”
Embracing team philosophy is no guarantee of success, and there are conditions which could see a team lose performance if not properly checked. Teams are not necessarily the most efficient solution for all situations, and organisations may over-estimate the benefits they will eventually achieve. I will attempt to define how teams operate within organisations, how the organisation expects teams to produce benefits, and how the processes within teams and external sources contributes to group discussion and decision making. I will discuss the role of communication as the lynchpin of team strategy, and conclude by examining the scope of a manager in achieving increased performance for the team, ensuring they can become more than the sum of their parts.
Defining Teams Shaw defines teams as “two-or-more employees who interact with each other” to “influence the behaviour and/or performance of others.”Members are collectively responsible for the performance of the team. Team roles falls into three distinct camps, which can be termed executive, advice and action teams respectively. Executive teams, made up of senior managers and often including the organisational leader, define the strategy of the organisation, allocate resources, and establish a set of working practices and ethos that can be termed corporate culture. These groups have the greatest influence over both advice and action groups. Advice groups are primarily concerned with providing recommendations to the executive when required, and may not be as permanent as action groups.
Action teams consist of employees who carry out the work of the organisation, coming into daily contact with work practicalities, who are best placed to resolve difficulties in these processes. Informal groups within an organisation may also, exist parallel to formal teams, and may offer innovative ideas missed by formal groups. The Perceived Benefit of Teams The trend towards teams is reinforced by the business community’s instance that employing teams is a positive-sum game, meaning “teamwork yields momentous benefits to workers and management alike.”
Organisations hope teams given autonomy over design and production processes will consist of individuals who identify more strongly with such processes and engage more fully in them. Such autonomy, or “empowerment”, acts as a motivating force for workers, who see teams able to satisfy key personal requirements of working with others and achievement. According to one manager, such engagement can “transform a demoralized work force into an army of innovators.”
Employees who form successful groups can expect to earn rewards for their efforts. While this may take monetary form, workers also value recognition from an organisation, such as personal reward schemes, enhanced standing within the firm, increased promotion prospects, and opportunities for development. This in turn acts as a motivating force for other employees who aspire to equal recognition.
Management can benefit from the feedback process from empowered workers, which provides more recommendations for improvements than may otherwise have been the case. Managers also perceive that properly handled teams could reduce or eliminate conflict between themselves and the workers, as there would be a growing understanding that “both groups profit from the company’s success and should work toward their mutual objectives together.” However, it could also be argued that managers see the greatest benefit in financial gains for the organisation, as increased efforts of teams disproportionaly results in increased profits and cost savings at the top of the organisation.
Team Establishment and Roles Many writers agree the initial makeup of organisational teams has a profound impact on their results. Issues to consider include: optimal size for the group (3-7 usually preferable), the level of homogeneity within the group (culturally close member will become cohesive quicker, diverse groups may provide more innovation and problem solving abilities), working locations, and permanency of the team. However, the most important issue by far in establishing a new team is for the organisation to correctly convey their expectations, set goals, agree rewards structures and provide an accurate estimation of available resources, particularly technological.
These factors face influences from within the organisation and outside, new teams influenced too greatly by these external pressures may lack crucial components needed to perform. The key to creating teams that build and maintain operational advantage is building the team around the goal, and not vice-versa. To achieve best performance, teams must assign roles to each individual as befits their expertise. As a team progresses towards its goal, different roles may need to be emphasised. Diplomacy will be required to identify and resolve conflicts, innovation and new ideas will be required in some areas, a more reserved and conservative approach in others. In many cases, strong direction and leadership will also be crucial.
As the team develops there should be a conscious balance between task-performance and the well being of team-members, as one will falter without maintaining the other. In a well developed team it should be possible for all the above roles to be used by more than one member, with each individual leading the group and contributing with their strengths as required. Team Processes Throughout any team’s life there are a number of internal stages which it must navigate before reaching optimal performance. These are commonly referred to as forming, storming, norming and performing stages.
The forming stage consists of people initially meeting and creating a framework for interaction. Storming quickly follows, as these interactions are examined in more detail and an agenda is formalised. Norming occurs as the team establishes working practices and patterns of action, and agrees rules amongst members as to acceptable behaviour and expected requirements. The final stage, performing, is reached when all team-members are working towards their goal with optimal efficiency. Throughout all these stages there is a potential for conflict and inefficiency. This is particularly true in the norming stage, where competing strategies may be advocated, and the team must chose between them.
Conflict may also occur when teams are reliant on either other teams or external sources for their information, which lies outside the control of the team. Many teams will provide outputs to other teams within an organisation, and vice versa. Establishing and maintaining relationships with such team, and contacts external to the firm, will therefore be a critical secondary task for all teams. Relationships built on trust and co-operation are more likely to yield quicker and fuller communications than those solely based on power and authority.
Within each group there should be members responsible for co-ordinating external contacts. Likert referred to these as “linking pins”, although a more common term to emerge is “gatekeeper”. Gatekeepers are particularly crucial for acquiring expert advice from an outside contact that may have experience or information of interest to the team. Such advice may be given greater weight by a team, acting as a catalyst for the team to focus on achieving their goals. However, there needs to be a checking mechanism within the team to ensure they are not over-reliant on such advice.