The concepts of teamwork, team building, and self-directed work teams have penetrated nearly every segment of the business world in recent decades. More and more businesses are introducing or expanding teamwork as part of their production processes, with varying results. Registering a dramatic change from the more overtly authoritarian structure of traditional firms, companies have focused on more effectively utilizing their human resources by reorganizing them into more autonomous, creative units and harnessing the most productive aspects of their competitive and cooperative instincts.
A team is a temporary or ongoing task group whose members work together to identify problems, form consensuses about actions to be taken, and implement the most viable ones. Their purposes and goals often differ. For example, they may be formed to develop new products, act as liaisons between and among different departments within a corporation, or resolve problems. Teams are not, however, intended to be a panacea to all business problems, nor do they always work smoothly.
Teams are not appropriate for all organizations or in all types of businesses. Behavioral scientists are still working to determine exactly when teams will be most effective, what motivates team members, what types of business can best benefit from the implementation of teams, etc. The study of the philosophy and psychology of teamwork is still in its infancy. While effective teams can produce extraordinary results, studies have found that an estimated 50 percent of self-directed work teams result in failure. But as more and more businesses introduce the team concept, the wrinkles in the process are being ironed out and team popularity is growing. Teamwork seems to be the wave of the future in the business world.
The philosophy behind teamwork is simple: to mesh workers into cohesive groups in order to attain a common goal. The key word is "cohesive." If group members are not properly matched, they will be neither cohesive nor productive. A nonproductive team does not benefit the organization or the individuals. It becomes management's responsibility, then, to assure that teams are well managed and composed of individuals who manifest the necessary characteristics for group work.
Theoretically, if properly managed, people who work in groups will be more productive. In reality, the teamwork approach does not always work well. For example, the right type of team may not be created. One of the keys to success in the team approach is to select the precise type of team best suited to accomplish the intended task. There is a wide variety of teams available from which to choose.
Many different types of teams exist in the business world. There are, for example, functional, task, project, ad hoc, and standing committees; interest and friendship groups; autonomous, integrated, and entrepreneurial work teams; quality circles; and others. Often, people lose sight of the fact that some of these entities are actually teams. But that is just what a committee is: a team put together for a specific purpose. Placed in that context, virtually every business uses one form of team or another.
Groups fall into two categories, formal and informal. Formal groups are those given legitimacy by the organization. Informal groups tend to be more social in nature. Nevertheless, they are sometimes sanctioned by the organization in order to stimulate innovation or increase employee morale. The type of group utilized by individual companies depends to a large extent on the business, the problems to be solved, and the level of participation (e.g., executive, managerial, supervisory, etc.). That is why it is so important that management choose the right team format.
A functional group, also called a command group, is a formal group consisting of a manager and his or her subordinates, all of whom share a common specialty. For example, all the members of a functional group may be in the marketing department of an organization or the science department of a university. Functional groups tend to stay in existence for long periods of time. The type of organization the functional group serves generally determines the group's objectives, interactions, interdependencies, and performance levels.
A task group, or project group, is a formal group created for a specific purpose, usually to identify and resolve problems. Task groups generally work toward a definite project completion date in accordance with well defined parameters and within set budgets. Usually a prepared master plan governs their tasks and schedules.
Task groups supplement or replace work normally done by functional groups. They are frequently utilized in industries such as construction, petroleum, chemical, and aerospace, where workers tend to labor in teams assigned to complete specific projects. The teams might consist of a project manager, who oversees the team's activities, and specialists like engineers, research and development scientists, quality control technicians, etc., all of whom report to the project manager.
Closely related to the task group is the task force, also known as an ad hoc committee, which is a temporary team formed to address a specific issue. The task group does not actually perform the work required to resolve a problem, but is an advisory group. The group makes recommendations on an issue, then disbands. It is a distant cousin of the standing committee, which is a permanent group responsible for handling recurring matters in a narrowly defined subject area over an indefinite, generally long, timeframe.
There are two categories of informal groups, both of which play an important role in business: interest and friendship groups. An interest group facilitates employee pursuits of common concerns. A friendship group evolves mostly to meet employees' social needs. The leaders in both groups may differ from those appointed by the organization. However, the characteristics of both formal and informal types of groups are basically the same.
The relationships among the members are based on some common characteristics, e.g., personal interests or political beliefs. Often, but not always, the group's goals may be the same as the organization's. There are times when either or both types of groups can be formal, i.e., legitimized by the organization. The legitimacy is bestowed by astute executives because they realize that informal groups play a vital role in employees' work lives by boosting morale and facilitating communication. These are also keys to the success of more legitimate groups such as autonomous and integrated teams.
Generally, when the term "teams" is used in the business context, people think of formal groups such as work teams, integrated work teams, and autonomous work teams. That is because such formal work units are becoming more popular in the workplace today and receive more attention from researchers than do the more traditional teams.
A work team is simply a group of individuals who cooperate in completing a set of tasks. Work teams fall into one of two categories: integrated and autonomous.
An integrated work team is a group that accomplishes many tasks by making specific assignments to members and rotating jobs among them as the tasks require. The team decides the members' specific assignments and how and when to rotate jobs among them as the tasks require. An integrated team has an assigned supervisor who oversees its activities. Such teams are used frequently in business areas such as building maintenance and construction.
An autonomous (or self-managing) work team is given almost complete autonomy in determining how a task will be done. Autonomous work teams have a wider range of discretion than integrated teams. The organization provides the autonomous team with a goal. From that point on, the team members determine work assignments, rest periods, schedules, quality control procedures, and other matters associated with the job. Fully autonomous teams may decide who is hired, who is fired, and perform one another's evaluations. Often, there are no supervisors in autonomous teams. All members of the group share equal responsibility for the leadership.
Autonomous work teams have proven especially effective in auto manufacturing and associated industries. For example, Goodyear Tire and Rubber experienced success with them in its Lawton, Oklahoma radial-tire plant. The work force included 164 teams made up of 5 to 27 members. Each team set its own production schedule and goals and screened applicants to decide on new members. Goodyear's management discovered that by using the team concept, the plant doubled its daily volume of comparable-sized, traditionally designed plants. More importantly, it beat the cost of comparable tires made by its foreign competitors.
The idea of matching or exceeding foreign competition's prices is essential to the success of American businesses. In adopting the team concept, American businesses are simply borrowing from foreign companies, like Volvo, which apply the team approach with a great deal of success.
A. B. Volvo is perhaps the best known model when the team approach is discussed. Its plants in Sweden are designed to produce cars without using assembly lines. Volvo's new plant in Kamar, Sweden, uses autonomous work teams consisting of about 20 workers each. The members are responsible for constructing entire units of cars, e.g., the engine or the electric system. Each member performs a series of tasks in a few minutes, which differs a bit from the procedures American assembly line workers in auto plants carry out. American workers will more likely perform a single task in a few seconds.
In the Volvo team environment, members learn several jobs to enable them to cover for sick or vacationing individuals. As efficient as the system became, it did not work well at first. There were problems in coordinating the team's multiple tasks, but constant refinements made the system work more effectively. Within a few years, it enabled Volvo to reduce the labor hours involved in producing one car by 40 percent, and increased the inventory turnover from nine times per year to 22. Most importantly, it sliced the number of defects by 40 percent, which is a tremendous cost saver for the company. Just how successful the autonomous team approach has been at Volvo is indicated by the fact that the company soon after opened a new plant at Uddevalla, where work teams will perform an even larger variety of tasks.
Yet another type of team is the entrepreneurial team, which comprises a group of individuals with diverse expertise and backgrounds. The members are assembled to develop and implement innovative ideas aimed at creating new products or services or improving existing ones. One of the best examples of an entrepreneurial team's worth is the development of the Ford Taurus automobile.
During the 1980s, the Ford Motor Company was suffering from lagging auto sales and severe competition from foreign manufacturers. Company executives decided to capitalize on their foreign competitors' strengths. They formed an entrepreneurial group as one step in their new approach.
First, they sidestepped the normal five-year process involved in designing, building, and producing a new automobile. Ordinarily, product planners would start the process with a basic concept. Then, designers would develop the look. Their ideas would be translated by engineers into specifications. Next, suppliers and manufacturers would process the design. Each group worked in a vacuum. There was little, if any, contact among the various groups.
Ford's executives decided on a radical new approach to producing the Taurus. The company allocated $3 billion to fund a new group, called Team Taurus. The project involved a team approach in which representatives from all the participating functional departments, e.g., planning, designing, engineering, and manufacturing, cooperated. The team had the ultimate responsibility for developing the new auto. The advantages of the team approach became apparent immediately.
For one thing, any problems with the design could be resolved quickly, since each department involved in the process had representation on the team. And, the team could—and did—create sub-teams to perform investigative work. For example, one sub-team was responsible for designing comfortable, easy-to-use seats. Another studied how to effectively reduce the number of parts used in the production process. The biggest contribution of the team, however, was in its approach to the workers who would actually build the cars.
Team members asked the assembly workers and suppliers for advice early in the design process. The workers were happy to participate. They suggested, for example, that the number of parts in a door panel be reduced from eight to two for easier handling and to ensure that all the bolts contained therein had the same size head. The idea was to eliminate the need for different-sized wrenches. Suppliers also presented some valuable ideas.
Quality circles are closely associated with the total quality management (TQM) process. TQM is a systematic approach to emphasizing organization-wide commitment, integration of quality improvement efforts with organizational goals, and inclusion of quality as a factor in performance appraisals. Quality circles represent one method toward achieving the goal of TQM.
Quality circles, also called quality improvement teams, comprise small groups of employees who work on solving specific problems related to quality and productivity, often with stated targets for improvement. Monsanto formed such a team several years ago in response to a problem reported to it by the Ford Motor Company.
Ford told Monsanto that a Monsanto product, Saflex, which was used to make laminated windshields, was experiencing problems. The dimensions of the materials changed between the time the products left Monsanto's plants and arrived at Ford's facilities. Monsanto immediately assembled a quality control group. Within two months, the team traced the problem to packaging, designed a new prototype, tested it, and implemented a new packaging process. Monsanto's response satisfied Ford. The quick problem resolution was made possible in part because Monsanto's management adhered to one of the cardinal rules of team building: select the right people to perform the work. Achieving positive results is the ultimate goal for any team. It is paramount, then, if business executives hope to reach that goal, and any others for which they strive, that they exercise great care in forming their teams.
For those firms with substantially team-oriented structures, increasingly a company will eliminate its product-based teams in favor of groups with a customer-oriented focus. The philosophy behind this move is that a team can develop a long-term relationship with a certain customer or group of customers. Procter & Gamble and IBM are examples of firms who have eschewed industry based sales forces in favor of teams that specialize on this customer oriented approach.
Forming a team involves a great deal more than just throwing several people together and assigning them a goal. Consideration must be given to motivation, conformity, rewards, intragroup relationships, and norms. Most importantly, a clear and meaningful mission statement must clearly state the team's shared vision at the outset.
Extensive research has demonstrated that the effectiveness of a team begins to diminish over 12 members. The ideal size is typically centered around 6 and can drift as high as 9. Some groups encompass as many as 25 members. With more members, of course, the possibility of fracturing and redundancy escalates. Usually, when formal groups are established with large numbers, they inevitably partition into subgroups. While the specific size determination is obviously best tailored to the specific needs of the company and project, most analysts agree that a tight, cohesive group will generally outperform a large, less associative team.
However, when considering the size of a team, a firm must also be conscious of the necessity of assembling a diversity of skills and functional expertise, which can help foster creative solutions and techniques and avoid stagnation. Conversely, however, it can lead just as easily to animosity and division. Therefore, the authority structure of the team must be carefully designed, implemented, and mediated.
One element that can make or break a team's effectiveness is the degree of mutual accountability. Teams must be fostered to ensure that their loyalty and accountability are directed toward the team and its overall performance, rather than toward the boss. The equal sharing of and dependence on the entire team's outcome is a crucial factor if a team is going to prove worth the trouble of its assembly.
There are two basic types of groups: homogeneous and heterogeneous. Homogeneous groups comprise people who have similar needs, motives, and personalities. They are generally effective at handling simple, routine tasks. Their members' compatibility usually leads to high levels of cooperation and effective communications. The hallmark of the homogeneous group is the fact that the members have few interpersonal problems. Their group harmony is conducive to high group effectiveness—although that is not always the case. At times, the members of homogeneous groups tend to overconformity, which makes it difficult for them to deal effectively with non-routine matters.
Heterogeneous groups, on the other hand, are most often effective at handling complex tasks, especially those requiring innovative approaches to problem solving. For the most part, the members possess different backgrounds and areas of specialization. What one member may lack in training and background, another has. And because they tend to have different types of personalities, they are not afraid to ask questions of one another or to differ on issues. They will challenge one another's conclusions, hypotheses, ideas, etc. Their willingness to confront other group members leads to a valuable exchange of ideas, which in turn leads to innovative solutions to problems. Of course, that is not always a positive thing. It can also lead to intra-group conflict, which is a barrier to productivity.
Teams cannot work effectively to accomplish their goals if they do not establish norms by which they will operate, i.e., behavioral rules of conduct. Norms provide each individual in a group with guidelines on how to predict the behavior of the other members of the group.
Group norms are not designed to cover every conceivable situation in which a team might become involved. Rather, they address only those situations which are significant to the team. Similarly, not all norms apply to every team member. For example, all team members may have to adhere to norms regarding how much work they should do individually to help the group attain its goals. Perhaps only one member would be responsible for alerting the others to starting and ending times for a group session. There are times, however, when team members may deviate from norms, which can create dissension among them.
Once teams set norms, it is expected that each member will adhere to them. However, not all team members are willing at all times to contribute 100 percent to the group's efforts. Some are free riders, who exert less effort in groups than they do when working alone because they realize that when the team reaches its goal they will share in the glory and the rewards without regard to who actually completed the work.
Teams that include free riders must develop procedures to discipline individuals who do not perform their share of the work. Discipline can range from verbal warnings to firing or transferring the free rider. (Some teams, especially autonomous teams, have the power to hire and fire as they see fit without consulting management. Thus, it is within their province to handle free riders without overwhelming bureaucratic intervention.) The key to success for a team, then, is to get individual members to conform to the norms as closely as possible.
Individuals conform to team norms for a variety of reasons. Among them are personal factors, ambiguity, situational factors, and intragroup relationships.
People generally feel more comfortable in groups whose members share some common personal factors, e.g., age and intelligence. However, most people in the American workplace tend to be nonconformists. It is important, then, that groups be assembled with conformity in mind if they are to accomplish their tasks.
Intelligence is also an important factor in group conformity, too. Researchers have determined that the more intelligent people are, the more inclined they will be to go their own way. This is closely tied to ambiguity in the team setting. If the more intelligent members of a team clearly understand the instructions, alternatives, etc., involved in a group project, while other members see only ambiguity, then the latter faction will conform to the lead of those who seem to know what is going on. This can sway the power of balance among team members and lead to groupthink, i.e., social conformity to group ideas by members of the team. Groupthink can be hazardous for a team seeking diverse and innovative ideas to resolve a problem, create new products, etc.
Situational factors are also integral in the team concept. Such factors include the size of the group, unanimity of the majority, and structure. The people who form a group must consider carefully its optimum size in order to reduce friction as much as possible. They must also take into account the group's structure. Normally, the more decentralized a group is, the better it will perform. That is because contact and communications are limited to some extent, which lessens the possibility of groupthink. It is also essential that each member of a team knows his or her role within the group.
Everyone on a team is expected to act in a certain way. Those expectations constitute roles. Often, there is a direct connection between individual team members' functions and their roles. For instance, a marketing representative on a design team is expected to offer advice on how best to sell a new product. The quality control specialist is expected to oversee techniques designed to assure that the product is durable and performs as intended. That does not mean, though, that individuals' roles are limited to their particular areas of expertise. They are also expected to contribute in other ways, as devils' advocates, for example.
There are five widely recognized steps involved in the team-development process. They are forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. Not all teams will go through all five stages. Some may pass through several and then regress. All teams go through some of the stages, though.
Forming is the stage in which team members attempt to assess the ground rules that will apply to a task and to group interaction. Team members seek basic information about the group's goals and their roles in the project. They begin to test the extent to which their individual input will be assessed. Individuals may also try to analyze interpersonal behaviors within the group. Basically, forming is a feeling-out process, in which the members test the waters through extensive dialogue and try to make sense of the ground rules, assessing one another's characteristics before carrying out the team's primary mission.
Once the forming stage is completed, the members go on to storming. This is the stage in which individuals initiate conflict with one another as they identify possible areas of disagreement. They also attempt to resolve differences of opinion regarding key issues. Areas of disagreement might include task requirements, possible resistance to them, and interpersonal relationships. The larger the team, the more likely are the chances of interpersonal conflicts. The storming stage is also the time in which leadership struggles begin, and thus listening to one another and trying to find mutually acceptable resolutions to disagreements is vital. If issues cannot be resolved, the team's chances of achieving its goals diminish greatly. Once the sorting out process is completed, the third stage, norming, begins.
In norming, the team members begin to build cohesion and develop a consensus about norms for performing tasks and relating to one another. By this time, the team members are aware of individuals' idiosyncrasies and are better able to cope with them. They are also clear as to what individual members' roles are and exhibit a greater appreciation for problem-solving techniques. Harmony is the watchword in the norming stage, which is the final step toward performing. Not all groups reach the performing stage, though.
During the performing stage team members actually channel their energy toward the completion of the group's task. If team members have not achieved harmony through the first three steps, they may either disband or regress until they do. Those that do reach the performing stage, however, apply the problem-solving solutions or innovative product ideas generated in the previous stages. By this time, the individual team members' roles have been clarified and the group exhibits positive synergy, i.e., the force that results when the combined gains from group interaction are greater than group process losses. Weaknesses have been identified, and efforts are channeled toward their strengths. Teams that reach this stage will most likely remain effective—as long as they continue to devote their energies toward completing the task and maintain harmonious interpersonal relationships. They may continue to do both until the inevitable fifth stage, adjournment, arives .
Adjournment should be a happy stage, but it is not for some teams. It is the stage in which team members prepare for disengagement as the group nears successful completion of its goals. Members may be pleased with their efforts. However, they may feel some regrets at the team's imminent break-up. This, of course, depends on how long the team has been in operation. Adjournment is more often experienced by teams put together for short-term projects, e.g., ad hoc committees and temporary task groups. Nevertheless, adjournment is a part of the group development process—and often the most traumatic.
Individual teams may adjourn, but teams in general will not. The Center for the Study of Work Teams (CSWT) reported in a recent study that, by the year 2000, roughly 80 percent of Fortune 500 firms will have half their employees working in teams. Proven to be capable of extraordinary success in the workplace, teams will no doubt remain vital in the future. More and more companies are resorting to teams as a way of resolving problems, designing innovative new products, or enhancing old ones. In many cases, teams lower companies' costs in accomplishing these goals. As long as teams have a positive impact on the bottom line, they will continue to be a part of the business environment.
[ Arthur G. Sharp ]
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McDermott, Lynda, Nolan Brawley, and William Waite. World Class Teams. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.
Stewart, Greg L., Charles C. Manz, and Henry P. Sims. Team Work and Group Dynamics. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.