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Teamwork

The following is based on a presentation about teamwork from a group problem solving session, as well as additional notes and thoughts on the topic.

Recommendation

The overall recommendation of the "teamwork team" is to adopt a formal, integrated approach to teamwork that is part of the complete work environment. The information in the presentation, as well as the notes that follow, expand upon this concept.

Presentation

The concept of teamwork has made good progress up to this point, with recognition of at least some benefits of teamwork, and recognition that active support is required to make teamwork possible.

The next step is recognition that teamwork is an activity in itself, that it requires time and resources. The paradigm shift required to reach this state is to recognize that teams run on human energy, and that human energy is a resource which requires attention, encouragement, and renewal.

Teamwork is that aspect of a project which focuses on enhancing the human element. This enhancement can take many forms, including training, recognition, and teambuilding activities. Active support of teamwork assumes recognition that teamwork is a skill that requires practice and self-evaluation. Active support of teamwork is acceptance that high performance is voluntary, and that teamwork provides a structure and an environment in which individuals will feel motivated to offer their best to a project. And which kind of motivation will be most likely to elicit voluntary contribution--a carrot, or a stick?

Paradigm Shifts

Active teamwork involves several paradigm shifts. Understanding these paradigm shifts is necessary to understand the recommendations that follow this section.

Ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results

This goes along with the understanding that high performance is voluntary. Certainly, an extraordinary person can create extraordinary results. But can you ever count on having that extraordinary person when you need one? Teamwork offers alternatives. One is the synergy that occurs when people become motivated to work together. Another is high performance level that accompanies a highly functioning team. And it does happen that effective teamwork can create those extraordinary individuals.

Allow people to fail

People who are afraid to fail are also afraid to take chances. Optimal solutions to difficult problems almost always require taking chances.

Failure is scary for most people. The basic paradigm shift that has to occur is to minimize the cost of failure.

One way of minimizing this cost is to eliminate artificial penalties for failure. Yes, real failures have real costs. It is not necessary to add artificial costs for failure; another name for this is "punishment." It is even more demotivating when the definition of failure itself is also artificial.

Another way to minimize the cost of failure is to recognize that organizations can absorb the cost of failure more easily than individuals can. It is a rule of thumb in research that only one-in-five to one-in-ten projects will succeed. While it is necessary to remember that real failures do have real costs, an organization that wants people to innovate will provide an environment which encourages people to innovate.

Criticism equals loyalty

People who care want the best. This applies to work environments and results, as much as it applies to anything else in life. When people believe that things can be improved, they want to see those improvements. An organization that wants improved results or improved work environments will understand that people criticize things-as-they-are because they care. People who do not care will not criticize.

A corollary is that people who care the most, and who have other options for fulfilling their needs, will go elsewhere if their criticisms are not heard. An organization which does not listen will lose its best people first.

The same logic applies to customers, by the way!

Teamwork equals cheating

This attitude is instilled in us throughout our education, most of which is built on a competitive framework. A student wins by being better than everyone else. A student who builds on the work of others has not proven that he is better; instead, he has cheated by not doing everything himself. And cheating is punished.

The result is destructive in many ways. The best solutions are rarely achieved. People are suspicious of each other. (The most suspicious people are those who are assigned to work in teams; they always suspect that someone else isn't contributing.)

These attitudes carry over into the workplace. New problems require new solutions, but old problems require new solutions too. People who do too well are suspect. All too often, the "best" solution to a problem is "my" solution, rather than the one that solves the problem most effectively.

Effective teamwork requires a new approach. Using an existing solution frees up resources to solve other problems. People's achievements, in addition to team achievements, need to be recognized and celebrated. Overall achievement increases when people have the freedom to re-use.

Negotiating for Win-Win

In his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey identifies this as one of the seven habits. Win-Win means that nobody loses. At its best, Win-Win means that everybody gets what they want. Compromise is a weaker form of Win-Win, because everyone gets at least part of what they want--but at least they get something. People who get what they want will be willing to negotiate with you again.

But there is a more fundamental paradigm shift here as well. Other negotiating strategies, such as Win and Win-Lose, are based on a premise of scarcity: there are only so many resources to be had, and I want my share (at least!). Win-Win, on the other hand, is based on a premise of expansion: resources are not finite, and having what we want or need does not by definition take away from anyone else.

Ideally, Win-Win works best when the only alternative is "no deal." This way, no one ever loses.

Win-Win is a fundamental aspect of effective teamwork. Each achievement by each person or group contributes to the effectiveness and success of the team. This, too, is based on the philosophy of expansion.

Ego suppression

This is another shift from the educational paradigm. Teams are more effective when each person places the team's achievements ahead of personal achievements. Teams improve their effectiveness when they recognize and study their failings with an attitude of, "How can we do better?" rather than, "Whom do we punish?" But to achieve this paradigm shift, team members must truly trust the team and the teamwork process.

This kind of commitment is not freely given. Teamwork exists not only between individuals, but also between the team and the larger organization, and between the team as a whole and each individual. Each team member still has individual wants and needs; a team that wants the full participation of each team member will recognize, honor, and meet the wants and needs of each individual, within the team's ability to do so.

"We bring people together because we know they will disagree."

Disagreement and problems are major sources of innovation. Creating artificial problems is not likely to be productive in these terms; there are usually enough problems to be solved without this. But it is possible, and often effective, to seed disagreement.

Teams which use disagreement to encourage innovation must also be ready to deal with conflict management and conflict reduction. Conflict is not useful. One highly effective way to encourage disagreement without creating conflict is to tie disagreements back to the team's reason for existence, and to the individual's reasons for committing to the team. This reframing can focus disagreement in terms of team needs, rather than individual needs.

"A highly functioning team does not need either carrots or sticks."

As much of the above hints, teamwork itself can be rewarding to each individual. A highly functioning team does not need carrots or sticks; the team environment itself provides the rewards for teamwork.

This is not to say that simply calling a group of people a "team" will provide that environment. The team must be functioning effectively as a team before individuals within the team recognize this benefit.

There are two threads that run through this discussion of paradigm shifts.

  • The first is that each of these shifts requires a continuing emphasis on the human element of teamwork. This emphasis includes not only focus but also time and energy. This emphasis must occur not only at a management level, but also on the part of each and every member of the team.
  • Second, many of the same elements appear as components of multiple paradigm shifts. Each shift that occurs enhances the effectiveness of the other shifts.

General Recommendations

  • Effective teamwork requires a culture change.
  • Time and resources must be devoted to teamwork.
  • Teamwork roles and responsibilities must be recognized as real and continuing job responsibilities, and are equally important with technical- and business-related job responsibilities.
  • Teamwork is a skill that requires training, practice, and evaluation.
  • Recognition and awards to teams are essential in achieving the culture change.

Specific Recommendations

  • Formal training in effective teamwork.
  • Provide formal teamwork role descriptions, including communications requirements. When people assume these roles, match teamwork skills with assignments.
Note that roles within a team may often be extremely fluid. Role definitions need to acknowledge and support this flexibility. One way is to consider them as "roles" rather than as job assignments.
  • Maintain a skills inventory for all team members. Include teamwork and people-oriented skills as well as technical and business skills. Even hobbies may be useful if there can be a transfer of skills or knowledge to work on a team assignment or problem.
  • When building teams, consider roles, skills, career goals, motivation, and personalities.
  • For evaluating teamwork, one possibility is a team evaluation which is a component of each member's evaluation. Peer feedback is also necessary, although including such feedback in formal evaluations can often create problems.
  • Allow for teambuilding activities. This includes more than having an afternoon at the lake; it also includes work activities that focus on specific issues facing the team. This "stumbling block" session is one of many possible examples here.

Over the longer term, teambuilding activities can include creation of guidelines for teambuilding and teamwork, and perhaps even processes that focus on teamwork issues.

Final Recommendation

Adopt a formal, integrated approach to teamwork that is part of the complete work environment.

While there are costs associated with this, both in training and in the time devoted to teamwork issues, we believe that these costs will be more than repaid with increased productivity.

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Notes

Assignments Based on Personality

During the presentation, the question was asked whether a team should pick people for assignments based on personality. I didn't give a full answer at the time, but I have been thinking about this one.

My answer is that a team should use whatever resources are available, in the best way possible.

That is deliberately vague, but it does leave open the possibility of considering personality in assignments. I'd like to talk about that.

For some specific assignments, such as those in which the goals are well-understood and the work is well-defined, disagreements are not usually helpful. In this case, picking people who work well together is a good idea.

Also, some people will be particularly suited to particular kinds of work. Matching people-skills with assignments, where possible, does make sense.

But I also made the statement that "we bring people together because we know they will disagree." This, too, can involve selecting people based on personality, but this time by selecting to seed conflict.

Different personality types can contribute to particular jobs in important ways. For instance, in a small group which must work well together, but must also interact with a large number of other people, it may make sense to share leadership between an introvert and an extrovert. In a task such as requirements analysis, it may make sense to balance an "intuitive" (using terminology from the Myers-Briggs personality assessment techniques) and a "sensor." The intuitive will be able to store and organize large amounts of apparently unrelated data in his or her head, and can find correlations and connections that are not visible to others. The sensor, on the other hand, is a person who wants to see information in front of him or her, out in the physical world. By working together, they can do a better job of understanding and communicating requirements than either could do alone.

Again going back to Myers-Briggs, it is important to understand that any personality trait can be either a strength or a weakness, or sometimes both, in any given situation. Here, I'll use myself as an example. I am a "perceiver," a type that wants to gather complete information before making decisions. In my work on the complex call joint design team, this is an asset, because it is a complex issue and I will not be tempted to rush into a decision before I know what needs to be done. But the complement of a perceiver is a "judger," a person who is more comfortable with closure than with open-ended decision making. At some point I will need to push for closure, and this is a mode of behavior that is less comfortable for me.

An important point with the Myers-Briggs personality profiling is that although it separates characteristics into pairs of types which are complementary, all of us have the capability to act in either mode. Myers-Briggs measures which mode is more comfortable and natural for each of us--the mode in which we behave when there are no other constraints placed on us.

Another useful attribute of Myers-Briggs is that it can help us understand why we find it easier to work with some people than with others. Myers-Briggs types are not difficult to understand, and with practice it is easy to spot behavior that is characteristic of particular types. Myers-Briggs also helps us understand how conflict occurs between types, and how this knowledge can help reduce such conflict.

Assuming that "we bring people together because we know they will disagree," conflict management becomes a necessary teamwork and team-leader skill, and knowledge of Myers-Briggs personality types can be an extremely useful tool in conflict management.

Yet another personality issue in teamwork is the problem of "difficult personalities." Such types can include hypercritical, tangential arguments, joking, and many more. Many of these behaviors are useful at particular points in team activities, but are damaging at other times. One conflict management technique for dealing with these personalities is to actually assign these people to those very roles. By doing so, the team leader can assert control over when these behaviors are expressed, and can reduce their expression at other times.

All of this ties back (I hope!) to the point that a team should use whatever resources are available. Because teams run on human energy, personalities and behaviors can be valuable resources, just as much as technical skills. Failure to use these resources can diminish what a team can accomplish.