Why teams don’t work?

Here are some reports from the field, cited by Osborn, Moran, Mushiest, and Zinger (1990) in Self-Directed Work Teams: The New American Challenge. At Xerox, the authors report, Plants using work teams are 30 percent more productive than conventionally organized plants. Procter & Gamble gets 30 to 40 percent higher productivity at its 18 team-based plants…. Tektronix Inc. Reports that one self-directed work team now turns out as many products in 3 days as it once took an entire assembly line to produce in 14 days…. Federal Express cut service glitches such as incorrect bills and lost packages by 13 percent….

Shenandoah Life processes 50 percent more applications and customer service requests using work teams, with 10 percent fewer people. (up. 5-6) Heady stuff, that, and it is reinforced by back-cover blurbs. Tom Peters: “Selfridges work teams are the cornerstone of improved competitiveness .. ” . Bob Waterman: “Self-Directed Work Teams seems too good to be true: dramatic improvement in productivity and a happier, more committed, more flexible work force. Yet … They do just what they promise for the likes of P&G, GE, and Ford. ” It makes sense. Teams bring more resources, and more diverse resources, to bear J.

Richard Hickman ; Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Theory and Research on Small Groups, edited by R. Scott Tindal et al. Plenum Press, New York, 1998. 245 246 on a task than could any single performer. Moreover, teams offer flexibility in the use of those resources-?the capability to quickly redeploy member talents and energies and to keep the work going even when some members are unavailable. Teams composed of people from different units can transcend traditional functional and organizational barriers and get members pulling together toward collective objectives.

And, of course, teams offer the potential for synergy, that wonderful state when a group “clicks”and members achieve something together that no one of them could possibly have accomplished alone. These are major benefits, worthy of the attention of the leaders of any purposive enterprise. No wonder Steersman found teams to be so popular. But there is a puzzle here. Research evidence about team performance shows that teams usually do less well-?not better-?than the sum of their members’ individual contributions. I first encountered this bleak fact as a beginning doctoral student at he University of Illinois.

In a course on group dynamics, Ivan Steiner put on the board his now well-known equation: AP = UP – PL; that is, the actual productivity of a group equals its potential productivity (what the team is theoretically capable of, given the resources brought by members) minus what he called process losses such as coordination and motivational problems (Steiner, 1972). I was surprised that there was no term for process gains, the synergistic benefits that can emerge when people work together. The model, I thought, should really read: AP = UP – PL + PEG. It turns out hat there is no empirical Justification for that extra term.

When interacting teams are compared to “nominal” groups (I. E. , groups that never meet, whose output is constructed by combining the separate contributions of those who would have been members), nominal groups usually win. And when Steiner’s models miss the mark in empirical studies, the problem usually is that groups fail to achieve even the relatively modest performance targets specified by those models. At least for groups in the experimental laboratory. Maybe the laboratory context is so constraining that groups do not have the elbow room to show what they can do.

Maybe the real advantages of groups are only to be found

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in organizational practice. I came up short on this hypothesis as well, this time at the hands of Bill Hicks, an editor at Josses- Bass. My colleagues and I had completed an intensive study of some 33 different work groups of all different kinds-?athletic teams, industrial production workers, top management teams, prison guards, airline crews, economic analysts, and more. We pulled our findings together in a book that I proposed be titled Groups That Work, a catchy phrase with what I thought to be a clever pun.

Bill sat me down and said he’d e happy to publish the book, but not with that title: There were Just too many groups in our study that barely worked at all. I went back to the manuscript and found that he was right. Probably 4 of our 33 groups were actually effective teams. The rest had problems so severe that our analysis was mainly about what had gone wrong with them. So the book was published with a parenthetical phrase after my clever title: Groups That Work (And Those That Don’t). Anyone who actually reads through it will discover, as Bill did, that most of our groups lie within the parentheses. Moreover, the preface of the book offers a cautionary note about team effectiveness, based on the experience of the authors who wrote it. The book took 9 years to be completed, mainly because our own team suffered a near-total collapse midway through the project. 247 Other in-depth studies of real groups performing real work provide additional reasons for concern-?such Irving Jinni’s (1982) well-known demonstration that even highly cohesive groups composed of well-qualified, well-motivated people sometimes fall into a pattern of “grouping”that can yield disastrous policy recommendations.

What, then, are we to make of all the team successes reported in the managerial literature? It is possible, of course, that the published claims are exaggerated, as writers have sought to catch the wave of enthusiasm about teams-?to sell books, to build consulting practices, to market training programs, to become team gurus. That is not a sufficient explanation. Indeed, I trust the accuracy of the numbers about productivity and service gains that are reported in the popular books about teams. My concern, instead, is whether those numbers really mean what they seem to mean.

Consider first the attributions that are made about the causes of team successes. After teams have been implemented in an organizational unit, its performance habitually is compared to that of a conventional unit (or, perhaps, to the same one before teams were installed). Such comparisons are fraught with interpretive ambiguities, because there invariably are many differences between the units compared-? in technologies, labor markets, senior managers, and so on. It almost never is the case that the only change is that work previously done by individuals is now performed by teams.

Was it the teams that generated the improvements, or was it one of the other differences between the units? It is not possible to know for sure. 2 Questions also can be raised about the staying power of any performance improvements obtained when teams are installed. The implementation of any new management program, be it self-managing teams or anything else, invariably involves intense scrutiny of the unit where the changes will occur. Taking a close look at any work unit that has been operating for a while almost always surfaces some inefficiencies and poor work procedures.

These incidental problems are corrected as part of the change process-?it would be foolish not to. But in making those corrections, an interpretive ambiguity is introduced. Was it the team design that resulted in the improvements found, or was it that a shoddy work system was shaped p? Virtually any intervention that is not itself destructive has a better-than-even chance of generating short-term improvements, simply because of the value of intently inspecting a work system. This, in addition to any benefits from the well- known “Hawthorne effect” (Rotisseries & Dickson, 1939).

The question, then, is whether short-term improvements associated with the introduction of teams are sustained over time as the newness wears off and inefficiencies begin to creep back into the system. Again, it is not possible to know for sure-?at least not without an appropriate longitudinal research design. 2 The solution to this problem, of course, is to conduct experimental research on the impact of team designs for work, because true experiments allow unambiguous inferences to be drawn about the causes of any effects obtained.

Unfortunately, experiments are rarely a viable option for comparing team and traditional work designs in organizations. For one thing, the level of experimenter control required in such studies (I. E. , to randomly assign people to teams and teams to experimental conditions) would not be tolerated by most managers who have work to get out. And even if an organization were found in which managers would relinquish such control to experimenters, there would be serious questions about the generalization of findings obtained in such an unusual place (Hickman, 1985). 248 So what is going on here?

How can we reconcile the amazing reports from the field about the benefits of teams with the gloomy picture that has emerged from scholarly research on group performance? Do teams generate the benefits for their organizations that are claimed for them, or do they not? 3 My observations of teams in organizations suggest that teams tend to clump at both ends of the effectiveness continuum. Teams that go sour often do so in multiple ways -?clients are dissatisfied with a team’s work, members become frustrated and disillusioned, and the team becomes ever weaker as a performing unit.

Such teams are easily outperformed by smoothly functioning traditional units. On the other hand, teams that function well can indeed achieve a level of synergy and agility that never could be preprogrammed by organization planners or enforced by external managers. Members of such teams respond to their clients and to each other quickly and creatively, generating both superb performance and ever-increasing personal ND collective capability. Teams, then, are somewhat akin to audio amplifiers: Whatever passes through the device-?be it signal or noise-?comes out louder.

To ask whether organizational performance improves when teams are used to accomplish work is to ask a question that has no general answer. A more tractable question, and the one explored in the remainder of this chapter, is what differentiates those teams that go into orbit and achieve real synergy from those that crash and bum. As we will see, the answer to this second question has much more to do with how teams are trucked and supported than with any inherent virtues or liabilities of teams as performing units.

Mistakes Managers Make In the course of several research projects, my colleagues and I have identified a number of mistakes that designers and leaders of work groups sometimes make. What follows is a summary of the six most pernicious of these mistakes, along with the actions that those who create and lead work teams in organizations can take to avoid them. 4 Mistake l: Use a Team for Work That Is Better Done by Individuals There are some tasks that only a team can do, such as performing a string quartet or arraying out a multiparty negotiation.

There are other tasks, however, that are inimical to team work. One such task is creative writing. Not many great novels, There is a large and diverse published literature on the performance of self-managing teams. Here is a “starter set” of illustrative and informative pieces: Cohen and Leotard (1994), Sorcery, Mueller, and Smith (1991), Gun (1984), Jackson, Malarkey, and Parker (1994), Pops and Marcus (1980), Wall, Kemp, Jackson, and College (1986), and Walton (1980). Some of the material in the next section is adapted from Hickman (1990). 3 Why Teams Downtown’s 249 symphonic scores, or epic poems have been written by teams. Such tasks involve bringing to the surface, organizing, and expressing thoughts and ideas that are but partially formed in one’s mind (or, in some cases, that lie deep in one’s unconscious), and they are inherently better suited for individual than for collective performance.

Even committee reports-?mundane products compared to novels, poems, and musical scores-?invariably turn out better when written by one talented individual on behalf of a group than by the group as a whole working in lockstep. The same is true for executive leadership. For all the attention being given to top management teams these days, my reading of the management literature is that successful organizations almost always are led by a single, talented and courageous human being.

Among the many executive functions that are better accomplished by an exceptional individual than by an interacting team is the articulation of a challenging and inspiring collective direction. Here, for example, is a mission statement copied from a poster in a company cafeteria: “Our mission is to provide quality products and arrives that meet the needs of individuals and businesses, allowing us to prosper and provide a fair return to our stockholders. Although I do not know how that particular statement was prepared, I would be willing to wager that it was hammered out by a committee over many long meetings. The most engaging and powerful statements of corporate vision, by contrast, invariably are the product of a single intelligence, set forth by a leader willing to take the risk of establishing collective purposes that lie Just beyond what others believe to be the limits of the organization’s capability. Beyond creative writing and executive leadership, there are many other kinds of tasks that are better done by individuals than by teams.

It is a mistake-a common one and often a fatal one-?to use a team for work that requires the exercise of powers that reside within and are best expressed by individual human beings. Mistake 2: Call the Performing Unit a Team but Really Manage Members as To reap the benefits of teamwork, one must actually build a team. Real teams are bounded social systems whose members are interdependent for a shared purpose, and who interact as a unit with other individuals and groups in achieving that repose (Alder, 1977).

Teams can be small or large, face-to-face or electronically connected, and temporary or permanent. Only if a group is so large, loosely connected, or short-lived that members cannot operate as an intact social system does the entity cease to be a team. Managers sometimes attempt to capture the benefits of teamwork by simply declaring that some set of people (often everyone who reports to the same supervisor) is now a team and that members should henceforth behave accordingly.

Real teams cannot be created that way. Instead, explicit action must be taken to establish and affirm the team’s boundaries, to define the task for which members are collectively responsible, and to give the team the autonomy members need to manage both their 250 own team processes and their relations with external entities such as clients and coworkers. Creating and launching real teams is not something that can be accomplished casually, as is illustrated by research on airline cockpit crews.

It is team functioning, rather than mechanical problems or the technical proficiency of individual pilots, that is at the root of most airline accidents (Helices & Focuses, 1993). Crews are especially vulnerable when they are Just starting out: the National Transportation Safety Board (NTIS) found that 73% of the accidents in its database occurred on the crew’s first day of flying together, and 44% of those accidents happened on the crews very first flight (National Transportation Safety Board, 1994, up. 0-41). Other research has shown that experienced crews, even when fatigued, perform significantly better than do rested crews whose members have not worked together (Focuses, Lubber, Battle, & Comb, 1986), and that a competent preflight briefing by he captain can help reduce a crew’s exposure to the liabilities of newness (Gannett, 1993). This substantial body of research has clear policy implications.

Crews should be kept intact over time, preflight briefings should be standard practice, and captains should be trained in the skills needed to conduct briefings that get crews off to a good start (Hickman, 1993). Yet in most airlines, crew composition is constantly changing because of the long-standing practice, enforced by labor contracts, of assigning pilots to trips, positions, and aircraft as individuals-?usually on the basis of seniority bidding system. Virtually all U. S. Airlines now do require that crew briefings be held.

Yet captains receive little training in how to conduct a good one, some briefings are quite cursory (e. G. , “Let’s the social hour over real quick so we can get on out to the airplane”), and schedules can get so hectic that crew members may not even have time for proper introductions, let alone a briefing, before they start to fly together. Creating and launching real teams is a significant challenge in organizations such as airlines that have deeply rooted policies and practices that are oriented primarily toward individuals rather than teams.

To try to capture the benefits of teamwork in such organizations, managers sometimes opt for a mixed model in which some parts of the work and the reward system are structured for individual performance, whereas other parts require teamwork and provide team- based rewards. Research has shown that such compromises rarely work well. Mixed models send contradictory signals to members, engender confusion about who is responsible and accountable for what portions of the work, and generally underperformed both individual and real-team models (Washman, 1995).

If the performing unit is to be a team, then it should be a real team-?and it should be managed as such. Mistake 3: Fall Off the Authority Balance Beam The exercise of authority creates anxiety, especially when one must balance between assigning a team authority for some parts of the work and withholding it for other parts. Because both managers and team members tend to be uncomfortable in 251 such situations, they may implicitly collude to “clarifying is really in charge of the work.

Sometimes the result is the assignment of virtually all authority to the team-? which can result in anarchy or in a team heading off in an inappropriate direction. Other times, managers retain all authority for themselves, dictating work procedures in detail to team members and, in the process, losing many of the advantages that can accrue from team work. To maintain an appropriate balance of authority between managers and teams requires that anxieties be managed rather than minimized. Moreover, it is insufficient merely to decide how much authority a team should have.

Equally important are the domains of authority that are assigned to teams and retained by managers. Our research suggests that team effectiveness is enhanced when managers are unapologetic and insistent about exercising their own legitimate authority about direction, the end states the team is to pursue. Authority about the means by which those ends are accomplished, however, should rest squarely with the team itself. 5 Contrary to traditional wisdom about participative management, to authoritatively set a clear, engaging direction for a team is to empower, not deplorer, it.

Having clear direction helps align team efforts with the objectives of the parent organization, provides members with a criterion to use in choosing among various means for pursuing those objectives, and fosters the motivational engagement of team members. When direction is absent or unclear, members may wallow in uncertainty about what they should be doing and may even have difficulty generating the motivation to do much of anything. Few design choices are more consequential for the long-term well-being of teams than those that address the partitioning of authority between managers and teams.

It takes skill to accomplish this well, and it is a skill that has emotional and behavioral as well as cognitive components. Just knowing the rules for partitioning authority is insufficient; one also needs some practice in applying those rules in situations where anxieties, including one’s own, are likely to be high. 6 Especially challenging are the early stages of a group’s life (when well-meaning managers may be tempted to give away too much authority) and when the going gets rough (when the temptation is to take authority back too soon).

The management of authority relations with task- performing groups is much like walking a balance beam, and our evidence suggests that it takes a good measure of knowledge, skill, and perseverance to keep from falling off. As used here, the terms manager and team refer to conventional organizational arrangements in which some individuals (“managers”) are authorized to structure work for performance by other organization members. Teams that have been given the authority to monitor and manage their own work processes are therefore called “self-managing. In some circumstances, teams also have the authority to set their own direction. Examples include physicians in a small-group practice, a professional string quartet, and a mom-and-pop grocery store. These kinds of teams are referred to as “self-governing” (Hickman, 1986). Given that newly minted Mambas increasingly find themselves working in or leading task-performing teams immediately after graduation, it is unfortunate that few MBA programs provide their students with practice and feedback in developing such skills. 252 Mistake 4: Dismantle Existing Organizational Structures So That Teams Will Be Fully “Empowered”to Accomplish the Work Traditionally designed organizations often are plagued by constraining structures that have been built up over the years to monitor and control employee behavior. When teams are used to perform work, such structures tend to be viewed as necessary bureaucratic impediments to group functioning. Thus, Just as some managers mistakenly attempt to empower groups by relinquishing all authority to them, so do some attempt to cut through bureaucratic obstacles to team functioning by dismantling all the structures that they can.

The assumption, apparently, is that removing structures will release the pent-up power of groups and make it possible for members to work together creatively and effectively. Managers who hold this view often wind up providing teams with less structure than they actually need. Tasks are defined only in vague, general terms. Lots of people ay be involved in the work, but the actual membership of the team is unclear. Norms of conduct are kept deliberately fuzzy. In the words of one manager, “The team will work out the details. If anything, the opposite is true: Groups with appropriate structures tend to develop healthy internal processes, whereas groups with insufficient or inappropriate structures tend to be plagued with process problems. 7 Because managers and members of troubled groups often perceive, wrongly, that their performance problems are due mainly to interpersonal difficulties, they may turn to process- focused coaching as a remedy. But process consultation is unlikely to be helpful in such cases, precisely because the difficulties are structurally rooted.

It is a near impossibility for members to learn how to interact well within a flawed or underspecified team structure. Our research suggests that an enabling structure for a work team has three components. First is a well-designed team task, one that engages and sustains member motivation. Such tasks are whole and meaningful pieces of work that stretch members’ skills, that provide ample autonomy for doing what needs to be done to accomplish the work, and that generate direct and rusticity feedback about results. Second is a well-composed group.

Such groups are as small as possible, have clear boundaries, include members with adequate task and interpersonal skills, and have a good mix of members-?people who are neither so similar to one another that they are like peas in a pod nor so different that they are unable to work together. Third is clear and explicit specification of the basic norms of conduct for team behavior, the handful of “must do” and “must never do” behaviors that allow members to pursue their objectives without having to continuously discuss what kinds of behaviors are and are not acceptable.

Although groups invariably develop their own norms over time, it is important to establish at the outset that members are expected to continuously monitor This point is reinforced in a quite different context by an essay written by Joe Freeman (1973) for her sisters in the feminist movement in the asses. The message of the essay is neatly captured by its title: “The Tyranny of Structuralizes. ” 7 253 their environment and to revise their performance strategy as needed when their work situation changes.

The key question about structure, then, is not how much of it a team has. Rather, it is bout the kind of structure that is provided: Does it enable and support collective work, or does it make teamwork more difficult and frustrating than it need be? Mistake 5: Specify Challenging Team Objectives, but Skimp on Organizational Supports Even if a work team has clear, engaging direction and an enabling structure, its performance can go sour-?or fall well below the group’s potential-?if it has insufficient organizational support.

Teams in what Richard Walton (1985) calls “high commitment” organizations can fall victim to this mistake when they are given challenging objectives but not the resources to achieve them. Such teams often start out with great enthusiasm but then become disillusioned as they encounter frustration after frustration in trying to obtain the organizational supports they need to accomplish the work. If the full potential of work teams is to be realized, organizational structures and systems must actively support competent teamwork.

Key supports include (1) a reward system that recognizes and reinforces excellent team performance (not Just individual contributions); (2) an educational system that provides teams, at their initiative, any training or technical consultation that may be added to supplement members’ own knowledge and expertise; (3) an information system that provides teams the data and forecasts members’ need to proactively manage their work; and (4) the mundane material resources-?equipment, tools, space, money, staff, or whatever-?that the work requires.

It is no small undertaking to provide these supports to teams, especially in organizations that already have been tuned to support work performed by individuals. Existing performance appraisal systems, for example, may be state-of- the-art for measuring individual contributions but wholly inappropriate for assessing ND rewarding work done by teams. Corporate compensation policy may make no provision for team bonuses and, indeed, may explicitly prohibit them.

Human resource departments may be primed to identify individuals’ training needs and to provide first-rate courses to fill those needs, but training in team skills may not be available at all. Information and control systems may provide senior managers with data that help them monitor and control overall organizational performance, but teams may not be able to get the information they need to autonomously manage their own work processes.

To align existing organizational systems with the needs of task-performing teams usually requires managers to exercise power and influence both upward and laterally in the organization, and may involve difficult negotiations across functional boundaries. For these reasons, providing contextual supports for teams can be a 254 significant challenge for managers whose experience and expertise has mainly involved supporting and controlling work performed by individuals. That challenge is worth taking on, however, because an unsupported organizational context can undermine even teams that are otherwise quite well directed and well structured.

It is especially shattering for a team to fail merely because the organizational supports it needs cannot be obtained. Mistake 6: Assume That Members Already Have All the Skills They Need to Work Well as a Team Once a team has been formed and given its task, managers sometimes assume their work is done. A strict hands-off stance, however, can limit a team’s effectiveness when members are not already skilled and experienced in teamwork-?a not uncommon state of affairs in cultures where individualism is a dominant value. It can be helpful,

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