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A Group of People Does Not a Team Make
by Barbara Pate Glacel


(This is the second of four articles on the Top 10 "Light Bulbs" for Leaders.)

A high-performing team requires communication, commitment, behavior change, and continuous feedback. All of these activities are hard work and require skills that are not easily learned within the context of a business crisis. They are better learned within the context of everyday work of learning teams.

Top Team Light Bulbs

Often, it is as if a light bulb dawns on team members, and they ask the obvious question: "Why didn't I see that before?" The top ten light bulbs are a good place for any team to start their own learning and to progress to improved quality in product and process.

Talking about the team task is easier; talking about the process of working together is more difficult.
Barbara Pate Glacel
Barbara Pate Glacel is CEO of VIMA International, The Leadership Group, in Burke, Va., and co-author with Emile A. Robert, Jr. of "Light Bulbs for Leaders: A Guide Book for Team Learning (John Wiley & Sons 1996). VIMA International focuses on increasing learning and performance by individuals, teams and organizations.


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Talking about task is a technical, mechanical, logistical or rational discussion. Only in rare instances does discussion of the task evoke considerable emotional input. It is more comfortable to discuss the task, which is external, than the process of working together, which involves internal and interpersonal issues. Discussing the process of working together means accepting responsibility for one's own impact on others.

Consider the alternates at Arco Alaska, as an example. (At Arco Alaska, all jobs are held by two people alternates. Each alternate works seven days on the job, where one lives, eats, relaxes and works in a remote site. Then the employee goes home for seven days while the other alternate works the job.) During the change-over period, information is exchanged about instrument readings, progress of building new facilities, maintenance problems, and the like. The alternates who do not get along with each other, however, do not have to face up to the interpersonal relationship problems.

As soon as the departing alternate is on the plane south, the incoming alternate is re-doing work done differently from how he or she would have done it. The complaining and frustrations resulting from this weekly exercise in futility drain energy and effort from a quality product. But, it is easier than sitting down one-on-one to discuss how the different individuals can work together to the advantage of the team, the company, and the bottom line.

Face-to-face meetings are needed for confronting difficult issues and reaching closure.

Even in this day of cyber-magic and instant communication, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication when dealing with difficult issues. Often teams are virtual, that is located in geographically separated locations. Without the advantage of bringing a personality into the discussion, conflicts may wither escalate or be swept under the carpet. Reliance on email to avoid solving problems means that teams don't form, products and services don't improve, and quality is always at risk.

The Problem with Virtual Teams

At Miretek Systems, Inc., some virtual teams never get off the ground because they do not spend enough "face time" to find a common purpose for working together and sharing information. In experiments with successful and less successful virtual teams, Miretek executives found that computer skills and willingness to use the electronic medium did not substitute for mature team collaboration skills. These are skills best built in a face-to-face environment where people know each other well enough to disagree in order to reach a higher level of agreement and quality solutions.

The team should capture learnings by reflecting on team process at every meeting, either before beginning the content discussion or at the end of the content discussion or preferably, at both times.

The learning should be published and considered equally valuable to the content actions taken.

Process Learning

Teams have a joint experience, which could be a meeting, a problem-solving session, or a team building exercise. Following the experience, team members identify what happened in a step-by-step fashion. As activities and actions are identified, members analyze what was going on and what were cause/effect relationships between actions, thoughts, feelings, and results. Finally, generalizations about the experience are determined. These generalizations are the lessons learned about how the team worked together. By reflecting on these lessons, teams work better each time they meet. They repeat the activities which are helpful and avoid those that get in the way of high quality work.

This process is taught regularly in MITRE's management and leadership development courses. As learning teams work on real time projects, they use the process to improve their performance. It is the lessons from this learning that managers take back to their functional areas and implement to improve performance on the job. In fact, these top ten lessons are a result of this type of learning process. As individuals become proficient with the reflection process, the process takes very little time and yields tremendous results in improved quality performance.

Teams can get a lot done when they are out-to-lunch (team development and team learning often don't happen in a formal meeting.)

Because the group formation process requires people to be themselves, to be vulnerable, and to recognize the whole aspect of one another, considerable progress can be made outside the work setting.

This does not mean that business issues should take a back seat to ropes courses, training games, and social events. It does mean, however, that the team that plays together typically works better together. Conflicts and barriers to progress can often be reduced outside the work setting. Individuals with interpersonal difficulties can see each other in a new light. Stress which causes team dysfunction can be mitigated in a social setting.

The Link Between Shuttle Diplomacy and Company Get Togethers

The shuttle diplomacy of the modern political era is an example of this phenomenon. Meeting adversaries on their own turf, getting to know their customs, dining together, and sharing family introductions, all facilitate the search for common ground among nations. The company softball tournament, holiday party, and employee birthday celebrations allow for team members to meet each other on equal footing, putting aside business differences. When normal business resumes, then team members feel better about working together because they have enjoyed each other in another setting.

Allocate time for forming, storming, norming, and performing every time the team meets, or pay the price of decreased effectiveness later.

These simple rhyming words describe the process of team development over time. A group of individuals do not immediately come together and produce quality results. Unless the procedure they are asked to perform is very routine and well established, requiring no discretion nor judgment, the team members must learn to work together. Especially in today's organizations which deal more with information and change than with routine mechanical production, team development is a necessity.

The progression of form, storm, norm, perform is not a linear progression. Rather, it is an iterative process which often results in two steps forward, one step back. Just as new members or interim experiences (see 1 and 2 of the Top Ten) require a re-forming, these inputs may cause more conflicts (storming), new behaviors which are acceptable to the group (norming), and a new standard for performing.

Forming and Reforming

A mid-sized public relations company experienced this phenomenon when the team leader wanted to implement a new evaluation process. The leader believed that since the group had been together a long time and was working well, there would be no problem. In quick fashion, the decision to implement a new evaluation process was explained and agreed in an informal gathering.

Because there was no time for the group to re-image itself by forming (which could be achieved by telling a few stories of its team accomplishments and previous synergies and experiences of mutual trust), and because there was no opportunity for an expression of doubt and anger about doing something that had never been done before (storming such as "what if you score higher than I do?!"), the group ran the risk of coming up with results that were less honest or even sabotaging the whole project.

The recognition of the team's discomfort allowed the team leader to step back and plan for a more cautious and participative team implementation of the new process. To allow time for forming, storming, norming and performing is especially important when any change of procedure is being considered.

Some Final Thoughts

The change we experience every day and the enormous growth of complex information, both mean that teams are an entity here to stay. No one individual can possess all the information required to run an organization competitively in a dynamic society. Therefore, these light bulbs are the path to follow as teams start the process of truly learning while they continually produce quality goods and services.

Previous Article

Next: Continuous learning is the key to team effectiveness.


Light Bulbs for Leaders: A Guide Book for Team Learning



Courtesy of Article Resource Association