Friday, July 17, 2009

Six Steps to More Effective Teams

How many of us have participated in a truly highly effective team? Even though most all of us accept that in today's working environment, teams produce better solutions and outcomes to the complex problems facing organizations today than individuals working alone, too few of us have truly worked in truly effective teams. I believe this is because organizational leaders are often still reluctant to make the organizational changes necessary for groups to become truly effective teams.

Because of the extensive use of teams in today's business world, it is important to ask how to make them more effective. Richard Hackman, the author of Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, suggests "a three-dimensional conception of team effectiveness" (Hackman, 2002, p. 213).

According to this concept, teams "generate products, services, or decisions that are fully acceptable to" their customers (p. 213); they experience "growth in team capability" (p. 30); and team members find the "group experience meaningful and satisfying" (p. 30). I

n the process members of teams meeting these three criteria move from being a just a group of individuals working together and become in the process a "real team" (p. 41). Real teams have four features, including; "a team task, clear boundaries, clearly specified authority to manage their own work process, and membership stability over some reasonable period of time" (p. 41). Real teams can be traditional department silos, cross-functional or as is becoming more and more common in the global economy, virtual in nature.

I have participated in many different groups and teams in my career either as a team member, a team leader or a team facilitator. It has been my experience that more traditional "functional teams... made up of a boss and his or her direct reports" are far less effective than cross functional teams (Parker, 2003, p. 2).

Functional teams are really more of a group of individuals than real teams because while they work together to solve common problems in order to reach organizational goals, they are generally made up of individuals who lacked specific authority to organize and manage their work and do not share a unified goal.

Rather, each individual works at achieving their own goals within the boundaries set by the larger organization and they only come together because of a common geography or reporting structure within the organization, not because they are given common goals and not because they have any authority to organize their work or implement their outcomes.

Even attempts I have been involved with to organize sales professional who call on the same customer are generally only groups that meet to coordinate individual activities and not true teams. It appears that few organizations are willing to take the step to give these groups the authority to organize their own work and even fewer are ever rewarded as a team and not as individuals.

The most effective teams that I have either been a member, have lead or facilitated were more cross-functional in nature. These teams were organized with a specific goal or objective to complete, given a deadline to accomplish that task and the authority to organize their work process and to make decisions that would later be accepted by organizational leadership.

In addition, team members were chosen based on their different individual skills and areas of expertise that would complement or add to the skills of other team members. These teams were more effective than other groups even though much of their work was done virtually because of the global nature of the problems they addressed.

This is not to say that these teams did not struggle with similar issues, such as how to make decisions, overcome conflict, and organize work loads, etc., that other groups must overcome, however; the common goal, the authority given them, and the restricted time frame motivated them to overcome their differences and find an appropriate solution.

These teams could have been even more effective if more formal training were given the team to help them establish communication norms such as how to make decisions and how to effectively manage conflict, adapt to individual team member styles etc... They also could become more effective if organizational leadership would make the decision to jointly reward and/or recognition the team as one unit and not as individual contributors.

In order for groups to become truly effective teams I believe organizational leaders can take six important steps, including :

1) Organize cross-functional teams based on the different and specific skills and abilities of each member

2) Establish clear team goals and boundaries.

3) Provide their teams clear authority and autonomy to organize their work and accomplish their goals.

4) Set a realistic but definite time frame to accomplish their goal in order to motivate and drive the team to outcomes.

5) Support their teams by providing all necessary resources to accomplish their goals, including; training, budget and organizational access necessary for the team to accomplish their goal.

6) Reward and recognize the team as a whole and not as individuals.

By James Gehrke

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