Teamwork Principles

SECTION 2.6

Without widespread and genuine teamwork, process streamlining that requires inter-organizational cooperation -- in terms of either design participation or acceptance -- will prove difficult to effect. In fact, merely identifying process simplification opportunities requires teamwork, for bureaucracies tend to protect turf by tacitly refusing to de-mystify procedures, especially at the interface with another unit's boundary.

Fostering Genuine Teamwork

A consistent tradition of teamwork has not developed at UCI, although recent joint efforts are encouraging. Some management actions have inadvertently supported rigid loyalty to one's immediate organization.

Genuine teamwork must be value-based -- behaviorally rooted in shared values. Managers exert considerable influence over values that fundamentally affect teamwork:

  • No one must be rewarded for (intentionally) looking good at the expense of another. When staff sense that such behavior is rewarded, they use information in tactical ways that prevent teamwork. Team players are committed to each others' success, and in a "teamwork culture" this value is understood.
  • At its core, teamwork requires a willingness on the part of individuals to enter into interdependencies involving risk. Trust is fundamentally at stake in such decisions. Widespread teamwork therefore requires many interdependencies and a foundation of trust. Rewards, recognitions, and performance evaluation systems must be developed and administered with sensitivity to the problem of not undermining interdependencies or trust between individuals.
  • Process innovation requires open debate about many "wrong" ideas. Complex process redesign starts with a great deal of chaos and many early "mistakes" in order to avoid late-stage errors. The "authority to be wrong at the beginning" must flow from and be consistently reinforced by senior management.
  • Bureaucracies shield individuals from intense conflict through rules, policies, and the diffused responsibility that characterizes committee deliberations of conflicts that are not readily settled through the application of policy. Discomfort with conflict runs higher in bureaucracies for this reason. Therefore, team leaders need to learn facilitation skills in order to make people more comfortable resolving conflicts in team settings.
  • Managers in a bureaucracy know that clarifying responsibility is necessary to head off the paralysis that can develop when there is uncertainty in a committee about who is responsible; however, such clarification must be subtle or teamwork will be thwarted. Teams, rather than individuals, must be empowered to solve problems (rather than "provide alternatives with pros and cons" to advise a manager's solution).
  • Respect for facts, data, and objective analysis is essential to foster teamwork. People are more willing to create interdependencies involving trust and vulnerability when they feel that facts and neutral data are valued.
  • The complexity of administrative problem-solving cannot be discounted. Knowledgeable employees know that there are no quick fixes. Team efforts can be quickly undermined by simplistic finger-pointing which suggests that solutions ought to be as easy to find as the problems were to identify.
  • The popular view that incremental process improvements "don't count as much" as big "re-engineering" projects de-energizes staff and undercuts the development of a team culture. Both large-scale and incremental improvements play a role in improving administrative productivity and service quality.
  • Less hierarchical layering reduces the risk-exposure of competent individuals (thus enabling them to enter into team interdependencies) to the extent that their ideas can be expressed more directly -- through fewer "layers" that might involve filtering or inadvertent distortion. Misunderstandings can be corrected more readily in a less layered, less hierarchical organization.
  • In the past, specialized staff polished ideas to final presentation form before managers proposed them as policy or program initiatives. As managers use fewer staff, more tolerance for work-in-process is needed because new ideas will initially be "messy" if they involve real innovation. (In a "flatter" organization managers will be involved in tasks that may have been performed by staff specialists in the past -- recording data on operations' performance, analyzing such data, and operational problem-solving.) In an organization devoted to teamwork and innovation, new ideas can be presented without risk of embarrassment at an early, unpolished stage when mistakes are actually valued.
  • In a "flat" organization with few staff specialists, respect for facts and objective analysis, and other attributes outlined above, managers do not discourage criticism of their own ideas. Teamwork improves when people can be critically evaluative of the group's efforts without reprisal, and when managers become more "hands on" and less authoritarian.
  • Recognition for UCI's role in piloting new systems and innovations affirms the value the institution places on teamwork, for such endeavors usually entail exceptional effort that is team-centered. Equally important, management praise which extends to new administrative ideas that looked promising but failed despite best efforts, or which "failed" initially but were successfully revamped, shifts the risk/reward ratio for individuals and teams willing to abandon the status-quo.
  • A "teamwork culture" must acknowledge interdependencies that exist in a complex organization. For example, in a research university above-norm services are needed to support income-generating activities on which the organization has a critical dependence. Values about "equity" must support the interdependencies in an organization; otherwise teamwork is undermined, and leadership is discounted.

Team Performance and Committee Patterns

Values that Support Trust (and therefore interdependencies, teamwork)
  • No looking good at another's expense
  • OK to be wrong at the beginning
  • Respect for facts, data, objective analysis
  • Tolerance for work in process
  • Managers welcome criticism
  • OK to evaluate team's efforts
  • Rewards based on team product

Practically everyone expresses disillusionment about committees, but no one is willing to abandon them. Given the need for team-based work and the value we place on consensus, committees are here to stay. Teams and teamwork are basic building blocks in this model for sustaining administrative improvement. To foster effective teamwork requires that dysfunctional committee patterns be targeted for change. Not all committees suffer from such disorders, but committee veterans complain about:

  • no sense of shared accountability for results -- merely the summation of individual efforts
  • no sense of urgency
  • no specific performance expectations
  • conflicts are endured, not resolved
  • agendas seem more important than outcomes
  • less-than-robust performance ethic
  • positional bargaining rather than true problem-solving.

High-performance teams need to break away from these patterns and the behavioral norms and value systems in which these patterns are rooted. What makes a team effective, and how can it avoid getting trapped in old patterns?

New patterns must be learned by team leaders and participants, and exercised with intentional discipline. These new patterns must address process attributes and interpersonal dynamics in a balanced way. The latter often frustrate a team's efforts in ways that need to be understood and reversed.

Seeing Conflict in a New Light

As noted above (in the discussion of "Teamwork Principles"), committees often shield individuals from conflict; and when conflict does emerge in committee settings, it is often endured or mismanaged rather than harnessed for constructive advantage. This idea sounds strange to many committee veterans, who may not see conflict as valuable to group problem-solving. Yet conflict is inevitable if stakeholders are involved in redesigning a process. The objective, in behavioral terms, is to focus the conflict around content issues being debated by equal partners, rather than letting it devolve into win/lose positional bargaining based on personal stakes and individual wills. A value-shift is needed, to a view that sees conflict among stakeholders as essential to process improvement -- for its catalytic value in solving problems and discovering innovations.

Many teams "get stuck" as soon as they confront this issue. Facilitators can help, and the ideal team has a process facilitator who is separate from the leader: a neutral, non-stakeholder, skilled and concerned about promoting the teamÆs effectiveness -- independent of its work-product. Not all teams can afford a separate facilitator, and team leaders need to learn facilitation skills. This document is not a "training handbook" for facilitators (a full repertoire of skills must be learned and practiced in a structured way for effective facilitation). However, the objectives of effective facilitation are outlined here.

A facilitator and a skilled team leader can help a team recognize disagreement and even disillusionment as normal byproducts for an effective team. Open expression about a challenging problem will practically always elicit conflict among stakeholders. Since no effective team can exist without stakeholders, open expression, or a challenging problem, the dynamic is inevitable and its perception needs to be turned in a positive direction.

Separating Personal Dynamics from Problem-Solving

The effective team is one that understands and practices the distinction of being "easy on people, hard on problems." This practice requires that time allocations reflect equal priority (though not necessarily equal time) for discussion of "ground rules," for talk about "how we're going to work together," and for evaluation of the group's progress in terms of process plans and intentions (as distinct from its work-product). Personal dynamics must be kept de-coupled from the problem being solved; address each separately.

Leaders and facilitators need to enable people to talk openly about their fears and disappointments as the group approaches, sizes up, and engages its task. Far from "touchy feely" management, the reason is pragmatic: Fears distort perceptions of others' intentions, which become suspect when the prospect of change confronts a group of stakeholders. These fears must be acknowledged and either removed or respected in order to build up enough trust in a group to take risks. Risk-taking is essential for team problem-solving.

Since fears of others' intentions can distort perception, talking through concerns, suspicions, and posturing is often necessary before accurate perceptions of data, problems, obstacles, and circumstances can occur. Such talk does not come comfortably for most participants without training and practice. Facilitation skills are not easily learned from reading a book.

Interpersonal dynamics determine the basic ingredients of an effective team: the ability to form accurate perceptions, to trust, to take risks, to exploit the benefits of conflict, and to avoid "getting stuck" in old patterns.

Process Dynamics

Certain process tactics can provide remarkable support for a team's effective behavioral dynamics (in addition to separating problem-solving from interpersonal issues, as has been emphasized):

  • Before brainstorming, the effective team agrees on objective criteria rather than allowing the sorting of ideas to become a contest of wills.
  • In brainstorming -- an essential tool for teams working on improving processes -- the group can benefit from two "ground rules" that extend beyond an agreement to suspend judgment (the usual ground rule): (A) Everyone agrees to keep in mind that there is probably more than one "answer" for the task at hand. (B) Everyone attempts to listen naively, as though they possess no prior knowledge.
  • Prior agreement on objective criteria is reached before value judgments are engaged by the team. For process improvement projects, quality design principles (such as outlined in Section 2.7) provide a normative framework to assist in evaluating alternative design proposals.
  • In organizing problem-solving meetings, a stated purpose is written down, as well as an agenda. These are separately stated, for people tend to suspect that agendas embody motives. Keeping the roadmap distinct from the destination helps to avoid this suspicion.
  • The last 15 minutes of such meetings should be reserved to summarize what was decided or concluded, to agree on work assignments, and to discuss the purpose of the next meeting.
  • To maintain momentum and a sense of urgency, effective teams adopt interim deadlines (milestones) for completion of critical-path tasks. (No team working on a complex problem can work with only one deadline -- the final completion deadline.)

Team Composition and Team Accountability 

Before either process or interpersonal dynamics begin to influence the effectiveness of the team, accountability expectations and group composition provide key determinants of the team's ultimate performance. Teams of greater than about five people present problems that extend beyond the difficulties of scheduling meetings. Some observers have facetiously noted that the collective intelligence of the group goes down as the group enlarges. To the extent that this happens, it stems from the complexity of conflicts involving multiple stakeholders, the dilution of accountability, and the difficulty of attaining trust and partnership as the group gets large. More consideration should be given to two-tier teams, with a core team of 3-5 people doing the central tasks of analysis and process redesign, functioning as an "executive" subunit of a larger group that provides stakeholder input and participates in less contentious activities such as brainstorming.

Teams need experts, and customer-driven process redesigns accord expert status to both service providers and customer-stakeholders. This means that "provider" experts need to be carefully selected; they cannot be the people (known to everyone) who use their technical expertise to mystify problems and disguise their own insecurities. Such people will not recognize the legitimacy of "customer expertise."

Finally, an effective team needs clear, tangible, measurable objectives. Process improvement teams are charged with streamlining administrative processes that result in fewer hand-offs, fewer steps, reduced path-length, fewer waiting/delay intervals, and fewer approvals. Objectives for cross-functional "Business Process Innovation" teams include a 50 percent or greater improvement in the number of process steps, approval steps, delay intervals, hand-offs, decision-points, and overall cycle-time. Objectives must be challenging, yet feasible, and linked clearly to the larger organization's strategic goals.

Shared accountability -- which is highly desired, in contrast to mere participation -- cannot be inspired in a team solely through conviction on the part of the "process sponsor," as is sometimes suggested. In addition, for reasons discussed above, effective teams need a disciplined approach that manages interpersonal as well as process dynamics in order to sidestep dysfunctional patterns that plague so many committees. This is why effective team leaders need facilitation skills in addition to motivational talents.