ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum


Online Edition - January 2002

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Issue Highlight — Teams Are Awesome!
-In Teams Are Awesome! -- We offer you the power, energy, and innovation that come out of teams working together to improve their work, their work environment, and, as often as not, themselves. They truly inspire awe. Here we present four teams selected at random from those who have entered AQP's Team Excellence Competition.

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

 In This Issue...
Fish Philosophy and Teamwork
Connected But Not Connecting
Thriving Through Teamwork
Ten Compelling Reasons Why Your Company Shouldn’t Downsize


 Features...
Peter Block Column

Pageturners
Brief Cases


Return to NFC Index


My Kingdom for a Team

Of all the innovations and movements in the world of quality and organizational change, nothing has been so durable as our interest in developing effective teams. The durability of our interest in teams is actually quite amazing. In fact, when I began consulting in 1966 (I was seven years old), organizational development was about two activities; individual training and building teams. The first talk I ever gave at a conference was about team building. And here we are, decades later, still engaged in building teams, understanding teams, agonizing over the lack of teamwork, and teaching about creating teams.

   What is it about teams that is so engaging and so beguiling? You would think that by now, working in teams would be second nature and part of the bloodstream of institutional life. After all, no one argues against teams. We use teams in sports as metaphors for how work should get done. What's the problem?

   Partly the challenge of building teams is made difficult by the highly individualistic nature of our culture. We still think that excellent work is performed and accomplished by individuals. In school we still believe that student competition is important for motivation and still call cooperation cheating. We think we need to identify the best and the brightest to decide who is worthy of more societal investment at the higher levels of education.

   I also think there are political reasons why we are reluctant to put all our eggs in the team basket. There was a time in seafaring days that if workers met among themselves and discussed improved working conditions, it was called mutiny. Mutiny, in a way, was an early form of self-management.

Who is in Charge?

There is truth in the belief that when strong teams form, they are harder to control. We have a deep institutional fear that when subordinates come together their cohesion might take on rebellious forms. The union movement is an example where organized workers successfully put restraints on the freedoms of management. The restraints in most cases were warranted and set limits on management abuses, but Americans do like their freedom.

   What teams stand for is the power of the small group. I believe, as Margaret Mead is famous for saying, that all social change begins with the action of a small group. Strong individual leaders may speak for a new world, and they may catalyze energy for change, but no amount of individual effort or greatness gains any power without a committed group behind it. This is one of the reasons why training individuals has little impact on changing organizations. People can develop new skills and be determined to live out a new vision. But on their own, without the support of those around them, the skills and determination decay.

   My own observations of companies where real change has occurred is that what drove the change was a committed group of middle and upper middle managers who were so fed up with the old way of operating, that they pushed a shift in culture. This was almost independent of what their top management wanted. When the efforts of the small group of managers began to be successful, top management got interested and got behind the change. But the change was given life and sustained by a small group. I have seen this happen at Ford, Harley, Texas Instruments, Goodyear, the IRS, and many others; at least this is what was happening when there were successful change efforts at these places. The fact that we tend to credit great leadership for changing organizations is more an expression of our bias toward individual heroism than an observation of how change takes place.

   What this means is that when we continue to train and reward individuals, we are choosing to maintain the existing culture of an organization, even though we are claiming to try to change it. Granted there are places where teams are recognized and rewarded, but even in these places, team recognition pales in comparison to the individual pay systems, individual training investments, and the power vested in individual leaders.

The Power of the Small Group

If our desire is to change organizations, then our primary effort should be to focus on small groups. Small groups are the unit of social change. This is why it makes sense to break people into small groups when we bring people together to create a new future for an organization. I used to be apologetic about the fact that I was always breaking people into small groups. Not anymore.

   It is in the small group where people overcome their isolation. People discover they are not alone in their view of the existing culture and in their wish for an alternative future. A small group is where interdependence can be fully acknowledged, where fear is reduced and courage is born. Small groups are the basis of social activism, which is what is required for systems to change. We can usefully think in terms of large system change, but it is the actions of small systems joining forces that cause large systems to change.

   Investing in teams may seem slow, expensive, and counter to the individualistic instinct of the culture, but what authentic change effort is not slow, expensive, and counter-cultural? The desire to change systems quickly with the efficient stroke of a change in structure, a new top-driven mission, and training new roles and behaviors results most often in keeping the existing system in place. It is a recipe for cosmetic change because it is not based on collective action, it is based on the hope of a collection of individual actions.

Leader as Convenor

The challenge in more deeply investing in teams is that they will care only about themselves and not act in the interest of the larger organization. This is a real concern, especially since the early life of a small group can be very inwardly focused. (Us against the world.) We have to invest in team to team work. We need cross functional team to teams. Small groups need to be linked together toward a larger purpose and this is where leadership is essential. Leaders become convenors of teams, bringing them together in a big room to talk to each other, plan with each other, and create a future with each other. This is the power of large group methodologies.

   If we can acknowledge the critical building block role of the small group, then social change becomes possible. This is especially needed in a culture where electronic dialogue, shifting jobs, and part-time workers make any kind of intimate, enduring relationship more difficult. Viewing change as a form of community organizing puts organizational development in the business of social activism and political reform inside our institutions. This kind of frame is completely dependent on peer relationships. I know these kinds of terms make us a little uneasy, but this is what change most often requires.

   What a deeper commitment to teams requires is the faith that when people come together in powerful ways, even though mutiny may seem a possibility, people in the end will choose for the well-being of the institution. They will choose to build the larger system because they have the support of those around them, and with that have the strength to claim the institution as their own.

Peter Block is author of the best-selling books, The Empowered Manager, Flawless Consulting, Stewardship, and The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion. Block can be reached at pbi@att.net .

January 2002 News for a Change Homepage

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