ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

July 1999

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Teams That Work And Those That Don't

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by Peter Block
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Teams That Work And Those That Don't
From Airline Cockpit Crews to String Quartets - Key Factors That Make Groups Successful

NFC: You've received a lot of publicity around your research on cockpit crews. What kind of implications does that have for other organizations?

RH: One of the neat things of flight deck crews is that they are small and contained. You can see what's going on and that makes a difference. It's actually a nice place to generalize from. One of the findings from the research is that it really makes a difference to keep the team together and for the team to have a briefing at the beginning where the team actually comes together. Members know each other. They know this is our work. They know they're going to be relating to these gate agents and to those flight attendants. I think that has implications for all different kinds of teams. So often in work organizations someone says, "Let's throw together a team and have them look at that." And the team may be formed as casually as someone sending out an email to a set of people saying, "Hey would you form a team to look at such and so?" But it never really gets off to a good start, and sometimes it's even ambiguous who's on the team. So my conclusion from that, and this also is supported by the more recent research I've been doing on music ensembles, symphonic orchestras and chamber ensembles, is that having the team stay together, be reasonably well-balanced and having that kind of briefing or launch, can really make a difference.

NFC: Do you believe that there's great resistance to teams in organizations?

RH: In general there's just an awful lot of enthusiasm about using teams, and an enormous number of manager-oriented and popular psychology books that say to look at all the benefits you could get from teams. I would not code that as resistance. I would code it more as really hoping that teams will allow us to realize some of the synergies and some of the gains that we haven't gotten with other organizational devices. Where the crunch comes in is not in people's hopes, wishes or fantasies about the benefits of teams, but when you actually get down to the point of doing what needs to be done to create conditions for the teams to perform superbly. That's where the resistance comes in, because it involves some alterations of the authority structure or it requires change in human resource, reward system or information systems practices. The enthusiasm is there at the front. It gets hard to actually get those conditions in place, and the net result is that we often have teams in place that are either teams in name only, or teams that have one of their arms tied behind them. They weren't set up right or they don't have access to the resources and supports that they need to do their work well.

NFC: But even in your research, very few teams have great outcomes. So why should I, as a manager, embrace that, besides the fact that it's a fad?

RH: I wouldn't do it unless the work lent itself to teamwork and I could set the team up in accord with what the conditions are that facilitate a success. For example, the string quartet - it has to be a team. You can't be a string quartet by yourself. And when you look at what they've got: here's the music, it's just us, we're well bounded, we rehearse, we perform, we get applause if we do well. It's got all the conditions built in, but there's such an enormous difference between that and other kinds of teams and organizations. My experience has shown there are some teams that approximate a string quartet. When you've got a team working, say in a skunk works or product-development team where they're really off by themselves, they've got the resources they need. It's just us. We've got a very challenging task, it's going to stretch us. Those tend to do pretty well. You take, by contrast, one team that I had occasion to visit about a year or so ago, was a 17-person top management team. You know, it wasn't a team at all. For one thing the CEO of that organization didn't really want it to be a team. What he wanted was to have folks communicating and coordinating with one another better, and not to be so stuck in their own functional smokestacks. But he'd read all the literature, and he said, "Oh, well we'll make this into a top management team." And these people were saying "Why are we spending our days in these endless awful meetings, when what we ought to actually be out doing is our managerial work."

NFC: There's a unique kind of phenomenon there, and you can't train for it. For example, one can't really train an actor or an artist. They can tell you these are techniques that work when creating a role or drawing a still life in various circumstances, but the end result, great actors and artists will tell you, they don't know how they do this.

RH: Right, that's true for a lot of those kinds of artistic performances. Schools of education have beat their heads against the wall for decades trying to train great teachers, but some people are just naturally great teachers. They have the sense of timing, the intuition, they know the right question to ask, and I'm sure it's the same kind of thing among actors. The same kind of thing is true for teams. Sometimes magic happens. You cannot make it happen. But what you can do is create conditions that increase the chances that magic will happen, when members will say, "God, we just did a transcendental deal, I've never seen anything like that before." Although you cannot engineer those kinds of moments, you sure can tilt the probabilities in favor of them happening. I should also say, by the way, that you can create conditions for teams that make it almost impossible for magic to happen. Too many of the teams we see in organizations today, even organizations that espouse teamwork, are set up in ways that make magical interactions almost impossible.

NFC: What are some of the things we can do to tilt the probabilities to make teams and organizations have those moments of magic?

RH: It's really amazing the degree to which teams are formed, and nobody really gives attention to specifying what the direction is. Setting a clear direction is very important. A good direction is one that specifies clear, challenging and essentially non-negotiable end states the team is to pursue- but that leaves wide open the means by which those ends are to be sought. Imagine a team that is responsible for the launch of a rocket. Members are up all night before the launch because this sucker's going to go up in the air. And it's either going to go into orbit or it's going to crash and burn, and we've got to do what we need to do to increase the chances that that's going to happen. So having that direction and having it be exciting and challenging, but also having a lot of room for the people to figure out how they want to do it together is condition number one.

Condition two is having an enabling structure, which means having a group that is small enough to pull this off. I am amazed sometimes at some of the boards of directors for nonprofit organizations where you get on the board because they're hoping you'll make a substantial financial contribution, and the board of directors is 70 people. A group of 70 people can't do anything except vote. So you need to have a small group, appropriate heterogeneity, basic norms of conduct, so forth.

And then the third condition that I talk about is having appropriate organizational supports. Some of the team failures that we've seen is when you've put a team in place, given them good direction, collective responsibility for the work. It's the right sized team and it's got the right members in it, but it's popped into an organization that has a reward system that sets individuals off against one another for zero-sum game. It totally undermines the whole deal. And this is one of the places where that resistance that you were talking about before comes into play. Because to really create the conditions that would support a team you have to change things like reward systems, information systems and authority structures. People do not readily want to change these systems.

The fourth condition is the coach. If you get the direction, structure and the context right, then the team leader, the supervisor, the coach, call the person what you will, can really work to help the team take advantage of its good performance situation by making sure it has a good launch, that pre-briefing. Make sure that at the midpoint people take a little bit of a time out to do what basketball coaches do at halftime and say, "What are we doing well? What are we doing poorly? How will we change our strategy the second half?" And finally, when a significant cycle of the work is over, the day after the game we review the game films, we see what we learned from that task cycle that will help us do better the next time. If those four conditions, direction, structure, context and coaching, are in place, the chances are that it's going to do better than if those conditions aren't in place. And every once in a while that group is going to do something that really is transcendental.

NFC: What you said sounds convincingly logical. Why don't organizations recognize these four conditions?

RH: It is important to identify the times and conditions under which organizations can make fundamental change. If I am really going to give a collection of people some serious autonomy and responsibility for carrying out a very important piece of the work, doing that requires some courage, some trust, some belief. Very often managers are unwilling to take the brave step to actually create the conditions in the organization which involve some fundamental changes that will increase the chance of success. Instead, they introduce the intervention and then tie the team's hands behind its back, because they don't want to make those fundamental changes, and then the intervention fails.

NFC: Many organizations implement teams at a time when they are already in crisis.

RH: The timing thing is really interesting because change can be attempted either to early or too late. It's like an inverted-U. If everything is going smoothly, why worry. The money just keeps coming in and our biggest problem is depositing it and figuring out what to do with it. Or if the place is literally falling apart, we can't do it. So, there's someplace in the middle where the balls have gone in the air, and we have the possibility of bringing them down in a different configuration, but they're not so much in the air as to be beyond the point of constructive intervention.

NFC: Has anything really shifted in people's ability to collaborate and work together?

RH: I wouldn't say substantially yet, but I think given that there is a greater respect for the potential benefits of team work than we have seen before, we're seeing people increasingly respect interpersonal as well as task skills as something that is important in work life. I think some organizations have discovered that just being a really sharp intellect is not sufficient if you don't also have the interpersonal skills that are required to get that intellect in harness with the intellect of other people. The whole little tidal wave that is sweeping over us now about emotional intelligence could be supportive of what I think would be a very constructive move toward greater respect for interpersonal skills. So long as we don't pervert that into saying, "We can measure EQ just like we can measure IQ and it's something that you got or you don't got," and treat it as an immutable individual difference. If we treat is as something that also can be learned, then that can help.
We humans are categorizers. We're stereotypers, because we have to do that to make sense of the over-information-rich environment in which we live. But once we start putting people into types, particularly personality types, I get worried. Some of the popular writing on teams does this, suggesting that there are, say, five key roles that must be played in every group, and that members' p'rsonalitites dictate which of those roles each member can and should play - w-ether you'll be the "integrator" or the "tension reducer" or whatever. Such pigeon-holing of individuals is far too pessimistic about people's capacity for learning and change. Much preferable in my view, is to focus on team members' interpersonal skills. It is a skill to be able to sense if some member is starting to tune out because the person is not happy with the way it's going, and to ask and inquire and bring out that person so we can get that perspective on the table and discuss it. Those are skills. It doesn't have anything to do with types.

NFC: Right, and they're the same skills we use in a marital relationship.

RH: Right, but I don't think we have a very good track record on that.

NFC: So is it no wonder that it's difficult for us?

RH: It really is hard. And what we learn as kiddies in many of our families is how to smooth over the rough spots, how to keep from hurting people's feelings, how to keep anxieties down, and those aren't necessarily the things that are going to help adults relate to one another competently in organizational work teams.

NFC: What are you reading?

RH: At the moment, what I'm doing, is attempting to finish the book I've been working on. It's kind of my approach to creating and supporting superb teams. I'm reading absolutely nothing that I do not have to read in order to get that finished before the end of August. Still, since you like to have people mention a book they're reading as part of your interview template, let me tell you that the most interesting book I've read lately is by a political scientist named James Scott, titled "Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed." It was published in 1998 by Yale University Press, and it is filled with lessons that those of us involved in organizational change ought to learn.

July '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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