21st Century teamwork

Team leadership is a crucial aspect of engineering management. But how do teams work well together? In this edited extract from their book 'Effective Team Leadership for Engineers' Pat Wellington and Niall Foster examine teamwork.

Over the years you've probably worked for a variety of teams. Sometimes they have been effective - sometimes they've not. A poorly led operational team, a cross-functional team that cannot establish a common objective, or a virtual team without robust communication methodologies in place can all end up floundering.

You might have worked in teams where there is energy, enthusiasm and a great feeling of camaraderie. Performance standards are high. Projects finish on time and on budget. Creativity and flair are actively encouraged, while 'blue skies' thinking results in a new range of services and products being offered to the marketplace.

None of this happens by chance. There are a number of reasons why the teams you've worked for have either floundered or flourished. So what does it take for a team to flourish and become high performing? How does the style of leadership affect this performance? And how do teams develop in the first place?

Teamwork through time

People have worked together since the dawn of time - hunting for food, growing crops and creating shelter. All in order to survive. There was always a leader, and everyone else did what he or she was best at, and they all shared the outcome.

We started to work in teams to overcome obstacles or to perform tasks that we couldn't manage on our own. Teams have been brought together to build structures as diverse as the Pyramids of Giza and the Channel Tunnel, or to fight wars and harvest fields. Before the Industrial Revolution teams had an innate flexibility, so that armies of soldiers or labourers could form teams to fight or to build during the growing season, then disband and reform in their home villages for the harvest, repeating the cycle year after year.

Industrialisation and urbanisation destroyed this seasonal cycle and management theories popular at the end of the 19th century broke down much of the 'cottage industry' teamwork into 'man-as-machine' components of mass production. Today we can see that manufacturers are returning to work group teams, how electronic communication enables close-knit and coherent teams to operate despite being geographically dispersed. New management theories such as de-layering, empowerment and re-engineering are leading to yet another incarnation of 'teams'.

Organisations have woken up to the fact that they no longer need to control production to supply a product or service, and that in many cases vertical integration is inefficient, since specialist providers can satisfy demands for components more effectively than in-house production. Outsourcing that was traditional for the input of materials and components has now become common for services, while electronic communication has allowed JIT inventory techniques.

This has forced organisations to recognise that one of the keys to competitiveness is a long-term and close relationship with regular trading partners. The supplier is no longer the commercial slave to be whipped, but the commercial colleague to be nurtured. Design and manufacturing teams are becoming more and more 'inter-enterprise', working alongside 'in-enterprise' management teams.

The final step in this process is for organisations to deconstruct themselves. Instead of a monolithic structure, with a chairman at the top, workers at the bottom, and layer after layer of fossilised management in between, the whole edifice is being dissolved into small work groups, each able to sell a service to others. The idea is for a team to come together, perform its activity (be it on a project or long-term basis) and then dissolve with the component parts able to reform into new teams ready to face new challenges.

Apart from a core of strategists and controllers the organisation in the ordinary sense of the word is on the verge of collapse, and is replaced with something more resembling a shoal of fish or a flock of migrating birds, splitting, reforming and wheeling about to avoid danger and to take advantage of currents and short-lived sources of food.

The office is becoming a pit stop rather than a residence, with 'groupware' replacing the conference room. Key individuals may be members of many teams, providing personal and information links between them, ensuring rapid flow of knowledge and best practice from team to team. Teamwork has become the name of the game.

What is a team?

You'll often meet a manager who will talk about his or her 'team' when in reality, what they are referring to is a group of individuals whose commonality of purpose is simply to prevent themselves being overwhelmed by their workload.

In their book 'The Wisdom of Teams', Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith define teams as:

  • Working towards a common goal;
  • Dependant on others within the team;
  • Having agreed a common approach;
  • Having complementary knowledge and skills;
  • Having fewer than 20 members.

As Harvey Robbins and Michael Finlay wrote in 'Why Teams Don't Work', a team is about people doing something together. It could be a pharmaceutical research team developing a new drug or a rescue team pulling people out of a burning building. The something that the team does isn't what makes it a team - the together part is.

'In unity there is strength' was a tenet of early trades unionists, who recognised that individual workers could be sacked due to a visible imbalance of power between the worker and the employer. But if all the workers acted as one, the power was more evenly distributed. We work as teams to pool our resources. In a trades union or a tug-of-war team this is very obvious, since everyone pulls together making near-identical contributions and merging their individualities into one effort.

In most businesses this is not the case. The team still works together to address a common goal, but we celebrate the individual skills that are needed to achieve the goal. Some contributions may be fleeting, some will form the long-term core that does the bulk of the work, but all will be necessary.

For most of the 20th century assembly work was done by specialists, each performing one task as the product took shape. We've all seen photographs of car assembly lines where the workers act as machines, fitting a handful of components and then standing back waiting for the next vehicle and repeating the process. This is at best an efficient and effective method, but it is inherently fragile since if just one person falters the whole line can be thrown into chaos. As a result, a more robust approach has been adopted - team working - where a group of workers perform a chunk of the overall assembly together. Each worker soon develops a range of skills allowing them to cover for one another, check each other's work and have a positive impact on quality. Motivation becomes higher than that of socially isolated individuals on the traditional production line. As we move towards project-oriented teamwork, mainly involving individual contributors on a short-term basis, it becomes more difficult to manage than production-oriented teamwork.

Developing your team

In 1965 Bruce Tuckman described four main stages of group development. He explained that groups must experience various developmental stages before they become fully productive and function as a group entity. Some groups become stuck for varying lengths of time in a particular growth phase. Moving through the growth phases is unique to each individual group and learning happens at each stage.

For optimum group performance all four stages need to be negotiated. These are 'forming', 'storming', 'norming' and 'performing'. In counselling and psychotherapy there is a fifth and vital stage: 'mourning'.

When a group of people are put together to form a team, they don't necessarily know each other. There is unfamiliarity, and time and energy is spent assessing one another and vying for position. Focus on purpose along with establishing team objectives becomes secondary to these preliminaries.

Forming is like the first week of a training course - a gathering of disparate people trying to find out about each other. At this stage individuals are trying to assess attitudes and backgrounds of other members, as well as trying to establish their own character within the group. Some members will test the tolerance of the group, but on the whole the majority of members will be on their 'best behaviour'. Individual roles and responsibilities will be unclear, and there will be high dependence on the team leader for guidance and direction.

In the storming or 'open conflict' stage members of the team start to work out what it is they want from the group process. This is often a very uncomfortable period. Goals are stated and interpersonal clashes result when difficulties emerge between the goals/needs/wants of the individuals. Alliances may be formed - sometimes even subgroups - and initial relationships can be disrupted.

The main characteristic of this phase is conflict between members and is usually regarded as an essential stage in the formation of a truly representative group. Without the support of the team leader in negotiating this tricky stage groups can remain secretly divided, function badly and become less creative.

Agreement and consensus are characteristics of the 'norming' or settling phase, where roles and responsibilities are established. The rules and norms of the group have been accepted, such as conference and meeting etiquette, communication methods and providing cover for each other. At this point, the team leader will start to delegate smaller decisions to others within the group.

At the performing or task execution stage members of the team will be more strategically aware, clearly knowing what they are doing. This is the stage where the group is functioning as a team and is keen to get on with the task. Members take the initiative, cooperate and work interactively to meet objectives. As the team now has a good deal of autonomy it can make decisions based on criteria established by the team leader. Disagreements will still happen, but now they are resolved by the team that will occasionally seek the advice of the team leader. This enables the team leader to move onto key activities and take a more strategic role.

If the team is ultimately going to disband, this will be at the end of the task or project. Those involved will no longer be meeting and functioning as a group entity with a common objective. Relationships between individuals may continue but this phase is often characterised by grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, letting go, coming to terms and moving on, for ever changed by the group experience and its loss.

Looking at this model, it is easy to see how a team will often believe that it is at the performing stage, when it's not progressed from the forming stage. To become a high-performing team it must go through all of these stages in the right order. The timing of the progression through the stages will depend on the nature of the team. A functional team that has been together for years will usually take longer to go through these phases, and will almost certainly move backwards and forwards as people leave the group and new arrivals have differing effects on the group dynamic.

Project teams on the other hand, together for just a brief period of time, will have to develop and go through these phases more rapidly if it is to become effective. Teams of any type can easily get stuck if roles and responsibilities don't appear to be fairly distributed, of if the team can't agree a common goal or way forward.  

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