Making Your Teams Effective

Everyone wants their staff to work well in a team. In this article Elisa Mendzela explains why some teams fail and how to help teams succeed.



(This article was first published in the Chartered Accountants Journal of New Zealand and is under copyright. If you use or quote from this material please attribute it to the author and publisher.)

"Groups" are not necessarily "teams". Yet many people refer to almost any work group as a "team". That fuzzy thinking can create confusion and the frustration of unmet expectations.

A group comprises a bunch of people thrown together for administrative purposes. Members of a group that is not a team see themselves primarily as "hired hands". For example they help to meet the group's objectives, but not to plan them.

A team, on the other hand:

  • possesses a common vision and purpose that members help develop and take pride in
  • has members who feel responsible for the team's work, not just for their individual contributions
  • senses the "value added" by the team to the wider organisation
  • strives for improvements and is "future orientated"
  • develops sound internal relationships
  • displays interdependence and trust
  • encourages open and honest communication to air differences constructively
  • develops a common understanding of individual roles
  • respects the diversity of team members
  • matches people to required outcomes to maximise team effectiveness
  • allocates leadership roles to maximise benefits

So a team could be described as "people with complementary skills, committed to a common purpose and approach, who work together effectively and hold themselves mutually accountable."

Teams have the potential to tap tremendous synergy. Team-work is like a salad. Individually each ingredient may be tasty and fresh but it will certainly not be a gourmet experience. Together, the individual ingredients can enhance each other to produce startling flavour combinations! Each ingredient retains its character and strengths but contributes to a more exciting and effective over-all result.

Team-work can be a better way of organising work. The potential benefits are immense. Team-work can break down "departmental barriers", provide developmental challenges, free-up management, or improve customer service. At the end of the day this should have a cumulative effect on the bottom line.

Notice this all sounds very tentative so far - filled with words like "should", "can" and "potential". Why? Because few teams achieve anything like these benefits. A recent study from the United States found that 6 out of 10 teams fail.

We've all heard the success stories. Organisations that have introduced teams have overcome mediocrity and sometimes the threat of extinction.

Remember some team achievements of the 90's? In the United States managers heard about:

  • 30% increases in efficiency at Colgate
  • Improved performance at Kodak (handling twice as many calls with double the accuracy)
  • Reduced costs and increased profitability at Texas Instruments (revenue up by 50% with reduced customer return rates)

In New Zealand, where organisations are so much smaller, we may have heard about the success of manufacturers like Interlock Industries. And of course everyone knows how a good sports team works. So surely it's easy for "Kiwis" to work in teams?

Not so. Personal experience and an increasing body of evidence paint a very different picture. Why does many a whirlwind romance with teams end badly?

Teams fail for a host of reasons. Most of them stem from our demand for quick fixes.

When considering a team-based approach, start by asking questions. Why do you think a team approach would be helpful? What's unsatisfactory about the current situation? What are possible causes and solutions?

Ask a fundamental question: Will your organisation really support a team approach? Answer it honestly. If the culture and climate of the organisation aren't relatively open and flexible you'll struggle hard to establish teams. Many organisations are hierarchical. Some are autocratic, based on command and control. In such organisations people may become confused by anomalies between team rhetoric and hierarchical reality. Using their initiative may be seen as over-stepping the mark, or even threatening the hierarchy. An example that comes to mind is that of a team-leader who sent an e-mail "discussion note" to managers at different organisational levels. The note listed ideas that originated at his team's breakthrough "problem solving" session. For the first time the team had focused on developing a range of potential solutions, rather than dwelling on problems encountered. Unfortunately, one manager complained to the team-leader's manager. The team leader was told that in future he should go through his manager who would review the ideas and (perhaps) circulate them. The team-leader and his team decided future problems belonged to the manager, not to them!

Too often teams fail because they are set up for the wrong reasons: as a substitute for poor management, or because of an unwillingness to tackle the real problem. For example, an effective team can't compensate for a poor manager.

For teams to succeed, people need to feel they played a part in determining whatever is created. That's quite different from imposing teams on people. Involve the team in determining the objectives, structures, methods and membership.

What sort of team do you want? There's a continuum of team-types. At one end stands the traditional team (with a designated team leader, who solicits ideas from team members and reports to a manager above). At the other end we have the self-directed self-managing team (where all decision-making has been delegated to the team, with no designated "team leader"). Team type should reflect what you, your people and your organisation can best support. Seek a good fit with the type of work to be done, the organisational climate, cultural issues, and the readiness of those involved.

Keep expectations realistic. Don't expect people who have been:

  • told what to do for all their working lives
  • discouraged from using their initiative
  • rewarded for hoarding information and expertise
  • to suddenly spring into co-operative action, use their initiative and make team-based decisions. It won't work! Move at a realistic and sustainable pace.

Team-work cannot succeed if people guard their patch jealously and see helping others as a loss to themselves. Try confronting rather than ignoring this negative behaviour. First sell the benefits of collaboration. If necessary reiterate the benefits, but also outline that collaboration is not optional. If a person cannot or will not change, take action. Do not ask a team to "work around the problem".

Help your team understand what "team" means in their particular context, to avoid misunderstandings. Spell out likely differences in what team members would do and how they would behave. Outline specific scenarios that illustrate likely differences. Point out opportunities and possible pit-falls.

Sometimes you may wish to develop a team to deal with a particular project. Team members may be drawn from all parts of the organisation, or just from one area. Wherever your people come from, learn enough about them as people to build and maintain your team. There may be a range of personnel and organisational issues to deal with before the team can be effective. For example some team members may rank higher in the organisation than others, but must nevertheless work co-operatively as peers. Someone in a formal management role may be reporting to someone who is not. Encourage the team to air issues.

Like each human being, teams tend to go through developmental stages. One developmental model is:

  • forming (The new team members demonstrate mixed attitudes: excited, optimistic, reserved, skeptical, anxious etc.)
  • storming (Here team members argue about actions, methods etc. They are testing boundaries and each other.)
  • norming (Members begin to accept team rules, roles, strengths, idiosyncrasies etc)
  • performing (Members become synergistic, effective and cohesive)

Not all teams necessarily go through the entire developmental process. The sequence may also vary. Many things will affect the team's development:

  • the diversity of team members
  • how well they know each other
  • how they have worked together in the past
  • how clear they are about their roles
  • etc.

Teams change, too. With time a traditionally structured team may take on increasing responsibility and become more autonomous.

Any membership change will have an impact which the team will need to manage. New team members usually take a while to "fit in" and contribute fully. Departing team members leave holes which may be hard to fill.

Strive for diversity in your team. Too often we recruit people similar to ourselves, or with attributes that the organisation values highly. Any organisation needs variety to gain maximum value from all opportunities. Try to enlist both conceptual thinkers and meticulous detail- conscious people. Combine focused people who are eager to reach closure with others who enjoy tangential thinking and open-endedness.

Help your team become self-aware. Ensure the team is alert and understands where it lacks skills. Together seek strategies to overcome or to minimize weaknesses. Keep track of process - how the team works - as well as content - what it produces. Team-work requires sophisticated skills and abilities.

Too often team-work is thrust on staff without adequate preparation. Apart from their technical/professional expertise, team members will need a variety of interpersonal and managerial skills. These include:

  • setting objectives
  • monitoring and measuring performance
  • using influence, negotiation, and collaboration skills to gain the best result.

Reward systems can help or hamper good team-work. Consider how to align performance rewards to a team-based environment. You may wish to acknowledge both an individual and a team component. Why not ask the team for their ideas? Some teams decide such matters for themselves. The optimal approach should reflect your organisation's culture, its people, and the level of trust that exists between all parties.

In the battle for better performance, there are no magic bullets. Creating and maintaining teams is not an easy option. It requires careful thought, communication and preparation to ensure your team achieves success. The risks may be great - but the potential rewards are even greater.