Effective Team Building

An Introduction to Teamwork

Teams are the primary vehicles through which work is done, problems solved and customers served. It is no exaggeration to say that teamwork is considered to be the heart and sole of an organisation or project.

When people work in teams, there are two quite separate issues involved. The first is the task and the problem involved in getting the job done and is frequently the only issue that is considered. The second is the process or dynamic of the teamwork itself.

The dynamics of a team is a very important aspect and is being explored more and more in a time where the ability to work in a team is seen as the primary attribute of an employee. Successful implementation of team dynamics can turn a loose and ineffective team into a tight unit that is many times the sum of the worth of its individuals. It is this synergy that makes teamwork attractive in corporate organisation despite the possible problems and time spent in team formation.

What is a Team?

A team of people working in the same room, or even on a common project, does not necessarily invoke the team process. If the team is managed in a totally autocratic manner, there may be little opportunity for interaction relating to the work. On the other hand, the team process may be utilised by normally distant individuals working on different projects. An example of this is the design of an aircraft, which involves many companies based in different geographical locations, working and collaborating together to achieve one collective goal.

In simple terms, the main catalysts for successful teamwork are the attitudes of the team members and the overall environment in which they operate. A flat team structure, where every member is considered to be an equal is far more effective than a strict hierarchy within the team where the team process may never evolve.

An effective team process leads to a spirit of co-operation, co-ordination and commonly understood procedures. If this is present within a team of people, then their performance will be enhanced by their mutual support in both practical and moral dimensions.

The Need for Teamwork

Teams are particularly good at combining talents and providing innovative solutions to unfamiliar problems. In cases where there is no well established approach or procedure, the wider skill and knowledge set of the team has a distinct advantage over that of the individual; the collective acts in a more objective manner, despite the fact that individual members in the team may have their own set opinions.

Furthermore, a team can be seen as a self-managing unit. The range of skills provided by its members and the self-monitoring which each team performs makes it a reasonably safe recipient for delegated responsibility. Even if a problem could be decided by a single person, there are two main benefits in involving the people who will carry out the decision.

Firstly, the motivational aspect of participating in the decision will clearly enhance its implementation. Secondly, there may well be factors that the implementer understands better than the single person who could supposedly have decided alone.

More indirectly, if the lowest ranks of the workforce each become trained, through participation in team decision making, thereby understanding the companies objectives and work practices, then each will be better able to solve work-related problems in general. Furthermore, they will also individually become a safe recipient for delegated authority that is exemplified in the celebrated right of Japanese car workers to halt the production line.

From the individual’s point of view, there is the added incentive that through belonging to a team each member can participate in achievements well beyond his/her own individual potential.

The Team Process

It is common to view the development of a group as having five stages:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing
  • Mourning

Forming is the stage when the group first comes together. Everybody is treading new ground, resulting in quietness and politeness. Since the grouping is new, the individuals will be guarded in their own opinions and generally reserved. The group tends to defer to a large extent to those who emerge as leaders.

Storming is the next stage, where leaders lose control and chaos ensues. Factions form, personalities clash, no one concedes a single point without first fighting tooth and nail. Most importantly, very little communication occurs since no one is listening and some are still unwilling to talk openly.

Then comes the Norming. At this stage the sub-groups begin to recognize the merits of working together and the in-fighting subsides. Since a new spirit of co-operation is evident, every member begins to feel secure in expressing their own viewpoints and these are discussed openly with the whole group. The most significant improvement is that people start to listen to each other. Work methods become established and recognised by the group as a whole.

Performing is the culmination, when the group has settled on a system which allows free and frank exchange of views and a high degree of support by the group for each other and its own decisions.

And finally: Mourning. This is when the team members must say their goodbyes, reflect on the project as a whole, typically from initial specification to final outcome and most importantly realise that the project is over and move on.

In terms of performance, the group starts at a level slightly below the sum of the individuals’ levels and then drops abruptly to the lowest point until it climbs during Norming to a new level of Performing which should be well above the start. It is this elevated level of performance that is the main justification for using the team process rather than a simple group of staff.

Team Dynamics and Skills

Teams are formed in order to accomplish some set of goals and must therefore be in the forefront of all team members’ minds at all times. This provides focus, purpose and direction to a project.

Another important skill is in recognising that the team represents a unique set of individuals with different knowledge, background and attributes. Understanding that everyone on a team is different is an important step toward building an effective team. Just as a basketball team has players who are good outside shooters and players who are good at rebounding, project teams will have people who are good programmers and people who are good at hardware.

When dividing up the work, the group must therefore be aware of these differences and assign tasks accordingly. However, caution must be heeded, as the main purpose of a team is to share appropriate knowledge between members, which entails learning. By being involved with the hardware part of the project, a member who feels uncomfortable with hardware can become more skilled in that area. However, giving this person total charge of that portion of the project is not a good idea. Teaming them with someone who is familiar with hardware aspects gives both a chance to further their skills. Furthermore, when a solution is required that involves both hardware and software, both members would have at the very least an appreciation of the requirements.

A further skill required for teams is that of resource control, typically time and labour. Teams must be careful not to dwell on minor points and constantly assess progress in the greater scheme of things.

Looking at the individual within a team now, one of the most important tasks for managers is to bring individuals’ goals into congruence with the organisation’s goals. In most projects, there are both team and individual goals such as individually writing a small program that will be used as part of a larger project. Individuals must therefore find a way to achieve their individual goals while still attaining the team’s goals. In most cases, as in the one above, the individuals’ goals and the team goals are interrelated, aiding the team process.

Several other situations and requirements occur and even underly team dynamics:-

Involve everyone. Teams often have both mice and loudmouths. Input from both is valuable so the teams should strive to involve the mouse and to prevent the loudmouth from dominating. Asking quiet members for their input and requesting more vocal members to summarise their views helps the situation. Each team member should also contemplate whether they are a mouse or a loudmouth and modify their behaviour accordingly

Dealing with feedback. All criticism must be neutral and focused on the task, not the personality. It is wise for teams to adopt the policy of giving feedback frequently, especially for small things – this can be couched as mutual coaching and it reduces the destructive impact of criticism when things go badly wrong. Furthermore, from personal experience, it truly helps if a criticism is accompanied by a positive suggestion for improvement.

Feedback is a two-way thing and if anyone does something well, praise them. Not only does this reinforce commendable actions, but it also nullifies the negative feedback that may come later. Progress in the task should be emphasised.

Handling failure. The long-term success of a group depends upon how it deals with failure. Any failure should be explored by the group. This is not to attribute blame for that is shared by the whole group as an individual only acts with delegated responsibility, but rather to examine the causes and to devise a mechanism which either monitors against or prevents repetition. A mistake should only happen once if it is treated correctly.

Assuming the best in people. Most problems are not the results of malicious intent, but as a result of frustrations, people start to see problems as being the result of intentional actions on the part of others. This is a human instinct that must be tamed. Fellow team members share many of the same goals and want to accomplish those goals. The ability to rise above interpersonal differences and focus on the task at hand is a mark of a good team. One must therefore make the assumption that the team members did the best they could and one must work on ways to improve the situation so performance can also be improved.

A Personal Reflection

Combining different strengths in implementation design is one aspect that has resonated throughout my personal team experiences. One such example is the team dynamic during my industrial placement, where an upgrade was commissioned for a top range Full Flight Simulator.
Figure 1 – The many varied disciplines that are combined into a “small box??? or simulator

Figure 1 – The many varied disciplines that are combined into a “small box??? or simulator

A simulator could be argued to be more complicated than an actual aircraft, as it has all the electronic complexity of the cockpit, the interactive aspects of motion platform, audio and visual systems as well as the actual software mimicking a real aircraft in every sense, as illustrated on figure 1. These complex and sometimes unique systems must all be integrated successfully in one “small box???, where the certification and testing procedures are more comprehensive than that of a real aircraft.

This means that in a team project of around five people, everyone carries their own set of expertise and knowledge for one small facet of the project such as Software Design, yet commonly lack any knowledge in a neighbouring skill such as Hardware Integration. However, for the successful integration of the various fields worked on, each member must have an appreciation of the overall task and what impact his or her work will have on neighbouring systems.

To aid this understanding, each member must work closely with team and understand what is required in relation to his or her own work and that of the overall system. Furthermore, the member should explain what he or she requires from the other team members. Such situations typically end in each team member gaining a strong familiarity and feel for the systems that are reliant on their own work as well as a general overview of how the entire system operates.

It is this transfer of knowledge that facilitates the first stage for successful teamwork, whereby each member becomes both teacher and student. When acting as a teacher, the member must be articulate enough to convey the necessary information and filter out things like jargon and irrelevant information. Conversely, when acting as a student, the member must be able to ask relevant questions and make it clear when things become complicated or seemingly irrelevant.

Another important, and possibly the most difficult, aspect in working within a team is that of agreement- a personal weakness. Regardless of what you know and think, sometimes your ideas will be proved wrong or too expensive; it is all too easy to try to save face by justifying your options, even though you know you are wrong. This fact has resonances when it comes to learning new methodologies and approaches too. Sometimes these contradict prior knowledge. In such situations it is wise to subjectively assess the benefits and more often than not, one will find that the suggested way is a better way.

The final lesson learnt through teamwork exercises, group projects and placement work is that confidence in ones ability, a keenness to learn and the enjoyment of the work carried out is the best combination for successful work. It no coincidence that such attributes and strengths are seen in people dedicated to their work.

It is this dedication that can ultimately drive less motivated people, force one to reassess differing opinions in a more subjective manner and to facilitate in the completion of a project as part of a team that wants to succeed.

Conclusions

The key is that teams should be viewed as an important resource whose maintenance must be managed just like any other resource and that this management should be undertaken by the group itself so that it forms a normal part of the group’s activities. By making the team itself responsible for its own support, the responsability becomes an accelerator for the team process itself.

On a broader view, the fundamental principles that determine team effectiveness are by a large measure unchanging, but other aspects of team interactions have changed dramatically. Teaming with others who have different knowledge bases and skill sets, as is the case on cross-functional teams, is a new, potentially enriching experience. It also brings with it some new challenges in communicating with others who may come to the team with strikingly different world-views and ways of communicating.

Successful teamwork tends to create loyalty, close friendships and team cohesiveness. In the past it was commonplace for team membership to remain constant for many years. This will be rarer and rarer in the future. A person entering the workforce today can expect to be a member of dozens of teams within a matter of a few years.

Learning to form new teams, get up to speed quickly and disband gracefully when the task is completed (often in a matter of weeks) will be a highly valued skill in a world of constant change. In fact, what’s needed now is a readiness to team with anyone at the drop of a hat.

This readiness to team will extend, in the future, outside the organisation as well. Teaming with customers and suppliers has already become commonplace. Teaming with competitors for special tasks is happening more and more – a point that is becoming reality in the Aerospace industry where large inefficient organisations are having to restructure and work with competitors to provide quality and value for money to the ever demanding customers.

References

Management Development: Strategies for Action, Alan Mumford (1992)

Groups that Work, Gerald M Blair (1998)

Tips for Teams: A Ready Reference for Solving Common Team Problems, Fisher, Rayner and Belgard (1985)

Toolkit for Trainers, Tim Pickles (1996)

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