Saturday, January 10, 2009

Team Dynamics

Many organizations are harnessing the power of teams to improve performance and replace traditional “command and control” methods. Robinson defines a team as “[…] a unit of people with complementary skills who are committed to a unilateral purpose and hold themselves mutually accountable for performance to goals using a common process” (Maintenance Management 2506). While effective teams may indeed generate synergistic results, ineffective teams may actually prove to be counter-productive. Team dynamics are affected by the characteristics of the individuals and the ways in which they interrelate as a group. Achieving high performance levels with teams is dependent on constructive interaction among the members. Teammates must be able, and willing, to draw on the individual strengths of each other as well as to compensate for weaknesses. While teams are used in many different ways, for this discussion we will focus on project teams.

In constructing a project team, it is important to include members with complementary skills. The proper mix of skills and abilities is a crucial factor in the team’s success. The selection process should ensure that the team is composed of people who possess the appropriate technical knowledge, the ability to solve problems effectively, and are able to make sound decisions. It is also important to include members with strong interpersonal skills (Thompson, Aranda, Robbins et al 253). The latter can be especially important since each team member brings to the group his or her own unique personality, biases, and interests. This diversity is one of the reasons that effective teams are able to achieve levels of performance greater than that of the individuals; however, these differences may also be a source of conflict within the group.

When a team is starting out, if those with stronger skills decide to move forward without consideration of those who do not possess the required skills, the team will begin to fall apart (Yager 11). To prevent this, and achieve optimal results, the team should draw on the knowledge and skills of each member, requiring them to be engaged in the process. Yager notes, “All learning, if it is to be effective, must proceed from awareness to choices and options, and then to applications and change” (11). In designing the way in which a team will operate, it is important to consider the different personality traits of the members and the affect on team dynamics. While some people are influenced more by their feelings, others require facts. Domineering personalities may cause those who are less assertive to withdraw and avoid voicing their views, potentially resulting in a loss of valuable insights. Personality and behavioral style tools such as the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator and the DISC Assessment can provide an insight into the ways individuals may interact with others. With a better understanding of their styles, team members can determine the most effective way to approach each other.

The attitude each member brings to the process will have an influence on the dynamics of the team. Volunteers normally approach the process more positively than those forced into participation will. Some individuals may come to the team with a strong positive or negative bias toward the team objective. For example, if one of the members has previously worked on a project that the team’s responsibility, there may be resentment that he or she was not allowed individual credit for the work. Others may lack motivation to participate in a process that does not generate benefits for them as individuals. In an altruistic environment, each member of the team would only consider the benefits to the team goal in their interaction. However, as humans, each member brings their own interests to the team process and, to some extent, will tend to influence situations from a personal gain or loss perspective. If the team is working on a high profile project, some members may view it as an opportunity to improve their visibility within the organization. If individual interests override those of the team, there is likely to be conflict.

Creating a charter is an important first step in setting the team up for success. As the team works on its assignment, it will help maintain focus and guide the process. An effective charter covers areas such as the team’s purpose, goals, methods, resources, boundaries, commitments, and process checks. Properly constructed, it can provide a basis to work through the normal issues encountered by new teams and help them deal more effectively with the conflicts that are certain to arise (Thompson, Aranda, Robbins et al 253). In addition to the charter, the team should develop a good set of ground rules to guide the expectations for interaction of the group. The ground rules should be clear and agreed upon everyone on the team.

Just as each person brings their own personal traits to the team, they also bring a unique background. This allows the team to draw from a variety experience, skill, and knowledge bases in working together. In forming a project team, it is important to assemble a group with the right skills and abilities for the work at hand. This often means the members will come from different functions and levels of an organization with various amounts of experience in working in teams. While building a team with individuals who bring a great deal of knowledge and experience relating to the project may seem ideal, it may also limit the creativity of the team. To obtain the best results, the team should find ways to challenge past methods and current thinking. Utilizing the diversity of experiences across the team may identify new approaches and options to the project at hand. Conversely, the team should contain a level of knowledge and experience to allow them to move forward at an acceptable rate.

As the team works on various aspects of a project, different skills are required. Time spent acquiring the capabilities required for that phase may hinder timely progress. The selection of team members should take into consideration the various functions required for success. Subsequent training and follow-up is necessary to support the team members if the project outcome is to be successful. Effective teams will incorporate learning into the process as a priority. At times, the team must rely on outside means to supplement their own abilities and must establish ways to access these resources.

Another consideration for team selection is the level of authority necessary to achieve results. If the project requires access to financial, labor, or other resources to execute the project, they must have the ability to obtain these resources. The scope and availability of resources granted to the team should be outlined early in the process and agreed upon by management. Teams often struggle in this area if tasked to achieve results without the necessary tools. Once these tools and resources are available, the members may require training and guidance in their use. A team sponsor or mentor may be able to provide the support and guidance necessary to keep the team moving forward.

In some situations, it may be beneficial to include a senior manager or executive with the authority to approve use of resources beyond the scope of the team. A concern with this approach is the effect on team dynamics. There is a natural inclination for people to defer to the “boss” rather than voicing their views. This may inhibit some of the beneficial interaction and idea sharing found in a group of peers. It may be preferable to establish a process for the team to present their needs to the appropriate manager or executive group for approval.
For a team to function effectively there are roles and responsibilities that must be fulfilled, such as leading meetings, agenda distribution, recording minutes, or arranging a meeting place. The ability to achieve results in a team environment is dependent the ability of the team to establish a structure that considers the combination of personalities, skills, and experience. In some teams, leadership responsibilities rest with one individual, others may rotate leadership at determined intervals, and still others may change leadership to best suit various stages of a project. Because of the varied interests, skills, knowledge and abilities of the members within a team, it is important to establish a leader within the team. Goals must be communicated by the leader so that the team members are inspired with a shared vision to maintain a commitment to the success of the project (Taylor 15).

A key role of the leader is to ensure that the group stays on task while promoting participation by all members. It is essential that the team establish the methods for performing tasks and monitoring progress. Since it is very easy for team meetings to get off track, agendas are useful to maintain order, structure, and time control. When meetings continually stray, members may become frustrated or lose interest; however, at times, it does make sense. The leader must make the judgment of when to allow a valuable process to continue despite the agenda. Team leaders must be careful to avoid the use of a member’s positional influence to sway the direction of the team.

Most team members dread the task of recording minutes leading many teams to struggle with assigning this responsibility. The recorder must be careful to accurately capture the main meeting topics and decisions and avoid personal bias in presenting the information. Often this role limits direct participation; therefore, it may be desirable to rotate this role. An alternative would be to have a designated recorder who is not a team member to achieve that the greatest level of participation from all team members. Good record keeping will help prevent disagreements later in the process.

There may be other ongoing roles depending on the structure and focus of a team. Tasks such as updating a project timeline or updating a management group are often assigned to one or more members of the group for the duration of the project. Though often overlooked, being a team member is a role in itself. Mark Taylor, president and CEO of TAYLOR Systems Engineering Corp., maintains, “No leader exists without gaining the support of others. The first natural law of leadership changes our view of followers because it recognizes the collegial, partnering role they play. Followers are allies who represent the necessary opposite side of the leadership coin.” (15)

A team can function at peak performance when all members take an active part in the team practice. Regardless of the team’s structure or function, all members should participate in the process and provide feedback to the group. This can be difficult when there are strong personalities or authority figures on the team. A well-designed team charter and good ground rules will support a process where all team members feel equal and safe to share their views. This is especially important during brainstorming and problem solving processes where breakthroughs are often a result of one idea triggering another. By drawing from the diversity of the group, teams have a greater opportunity to identify new and innovative solutions to the problems they face.

With teams becoming increasingly important in business today, understanding team dynamics will help to ensure they operate effectively. Good teams are able to tap into the diversity of members to achieve higher levels of performance. Drawing upon the various skills and experience of each individual, teams can accomplish things that individuals cannot. Teams will function best in an environment that is committed to their success and provides the support necessary for their development. Establishing processes to evaluate and support teams in achieving effective interaction of members will support organizational goals as well. Without this process, team dynamics may inhibit performance of the group, leading to less than optimal results. The ultimate level of success achieved by the team will be a function of the effectiveness of member interaction. George Eckes, the primary consultant for General Electric Co. wrote in The Six Sigma Revolution, published two years ago: “By far the greatest source of team failures is poor team dynamics and poor facilitative leadership behaviors” (qtd. in Taylor 15).

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